I recently interviewed Ruth Connolly on her new book with The Velvet Cell 'If you lived here, you'd be home by now'. Ruth's project really spoke to me being also from Ireland. She describes how she came back to Ireland after a period away to find these ghost estates that were in a seemingly permanent state of stasis following the economic crash of 2008.
The crash of 2008 hit Ireland particularly hard. We were the first country to need an EU bailout, and it was the catalyst for my own departure from Dublin to London in early 2009. There was an overwhelming sense of dread in the air for the coming years. Living in London I never lived the effects, only seeing them on trips home.
I had just graduated from University, and I remember one of my courses the year before being called "The Celtic Tiger: How Ireland Got the Economy Right!". Within a year almost everything had imploded.
Éanna: Hi Ruth, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions on your project. I’d like to start at the beginning: What is ‘If you lived here, you’d be home by now’ about?
Ruth: Hi Éanna, my pleasure! Put simply, ‘If you lived here, you’d be home by now’ is a documentation of how the landscape of Ireland has changed since the economic crash in 2008. It is a photographic project about Ghost Estates throughout Ireland - housing estates built during the property boom that now lie empty - half built, half finished, but never lived in.
I have photographed these wastelands as places of both the cause and consequence of the economic crash. It is a story of failure; of failed capitalism, of failed domestic aspirations, of failed ambition. I view these estates as non-places, with no function other than perhaps as a warning about greed and its repercussions.
Éanna: What inspired you to look deeper into this topic?
Ruth:I was living in London studying for my Masters in Photography at the time, and I went home during the summer, with a plan to drive around Ireland for a couple of weeks with my camera. I began to see Ireland differently after living away from home and I was interested to see if my photographs would show this new perspective.
As I drove around, I began to first notice that all of the towns were quieter than usual, emptier than usual, due to the thousands of young people that were emigrating every year in search of opportunities that were no longer available at home. I started to photograph this emptiness, and then in my own town I photographed a few houses that had been half built, but never finished, and had fallen into disrepair.
As I drove around the countryside, I saw more and more of these houses, and housing estates that were left vacant, and I began to research more about them. I felt these were the places I should concentrate on. It was far from the beautiful Irish landscape I had first considered photographing, but I felt it was important to document the estates as they were, fixed in this time, before they were hidden away, or knocked down, once the recession was over.
I felt that by photographing them, I was calling to attention the failure and the shame that I saw everywhere I looked at that time.
Éanna: As you began to go deliberately looking for these estates, did your impressions or views change in any way? Did you find what you expected to find, or something else?
Ruth: My views and impressions often change upon learning new information, or upon being exposed to new situations. During the Celtic Tiger era, when Ireland had a strong and growing economy, I remember seeing the huge new housing developments as signs of greed from the Irish people.
Why did all of the houses need to be so big? Why did it seem that everyone needed to own a new car? Years later, after the recession hit, I drove around working on this project, and I saw that although the estates had rows of empty houses, there would sometimes be one or two houses among the wastelands, that were lived in. These were people who had bought their new home thinking it would be in an exciting new community filled with young families - just to be hit with this new reality of living in a place with unfinished roads, no streetlamps, open waste, or dangerous building sites with no protection for their children.
I began to feel more sadness for this generation that had been sold a dream and ended up living a nightmare. As I photographed, I was very aware that I was acting as a sort of Flaneur, photographing other people’s realities with a certain detachedness, and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t include any individuals in my images.
So I would say that I expected to feel disgust at the greed (and of course I do feel disgust at the greed of bankers and politicians amongst others who left this as their legacy), but mostly I felt horror and sadness, for what had happened.
Éanna: You spoke about deliberately leaving individuals out of your images - how do you think their absence helped you to tell your story?
Ruth: There were a number of factors that led to my photographs having no people in them. Firstly, there really was no-one around for the most part. Some estates had a couple of houses that were lived in, others were completely empty. Secondly, I didn’t want to exploit the people who did live in these places, so out of respect I chose not to include anyone in my photographs.
But more than this, there was a sense of emptiness and a quietness that I wanted to capture, and I felt this could be done by leaving the scenes empty. It also gave a sense of uncanniness that I wanted to show, and a sort of narrative that out of normality, something suddenly happened to make everyone immediately stop and flee the scene, which could really be a metaphor for the thousands of people who suddenly were left with no work and had to leave the country.
Éanna: Being removed now by a few years, what was the significance of these places? Do they still exist?
Ruth: It is an interesting time for the book to be coming out now, a few years after I took the photographs. Recently we have begun to emerge from the recession; construction has started up again, and new billboards promise quick and easy loans for cars or weddings, signs that things are changing again.
At this point in time, we are removed enough from the situation (the recession first hit just over 8 years ago) to be able to look back at what happened with hindsight, without being so affected that we can’t bear to look, as was the case when I first started photographing the estates.
I have returned to many of the estates out of curiosity, and most from what I can see are still frozen in time, exactly the same as they have been for years. Others have been demolished, and some have been finished and moved into which is always good to see. Now the places in my photographs serve as a warning of what has happened when greed outweighs reality.