The sweet fragility of growing up
Photographer Doug DuBois captures that universal feeling of being caught between the adventures of youth and the uncertainty of adulthood
Doug DuBois was supposed to be in Ireland for only one month. But after a chance encounter with a couple of teenagers in 2009, the American photographer's excursion got a five-year extension as he embedded himself in a tight-knit community in a southern seaside town.
Doug DuBois, Jumping the Wall, Russell Heights, Cobh, Ireland, 2010 | (Doug DuBois)
Russell Heights is a housing estate in Cobh, Ireland, a coastal town not far from Cork, where DuBois was a resident at the Sirius Arts Centre. "It's a place that unless you know someone there or have a real reason to be there, you wouldn't wander in," he said of Russell Heights.
The community comprises a few blocks of single, attached homes. The only distinguishing characteristics to these residences are the alternating pastel paint jobs, the graffiti tags, and the lanky, slouched teens that pass through front doors and loiter in groups on the pavement.
Doug DuBois, Bonfire, Russell Heights, Cobh, Ireland, 2011 | (Doug DuBois)
Doug DuBois, Miya, Russell Heights, Cobh, Ireland, 2012 | (Doug DuBois)
For four summers, DuBois traveled to Russell Heights and hung out with these teenagers who, on the cusp of adulthood, were facing an uncertain future and mounting responsibilities, but still holding onto moments of childish adventure.
"That moment where you realize that your youth is no longer in front of you, but behind you, is a very difficult moment," DuBois said. "I tried to tap into that in Russell Heights. I looked at these kids and I tried to, in a sense, project into their future while, I think, honoring the present and honoring all their potential."
Doug DuBois, Roisin and Jordan, Cobh, Ireland, 2010 | (Doug DuBois)
Doug DuBois, Padjoe in his Father's Kitchen, Cobh, Ireland, 2011 | (Doug DuBois)
The result is a selection of intimate portraits and candids that capture the tension in the waning light of those childhood years. The wide-eyed teenagers boldly face the camera, but, with a tilt of a chin or a hand obscuring a face, are also guarded against the viewer. Their feelings of worry, wistfulness, and angst bubble to the surface, and yet the images evoke a serene beauty due to the artful mix of mood, lighting, and the occasional emerald landscape.
While the Irish backdrop is a reminder of the location, the subjects’ battle with growing up resonates universally.
"Understanding some of your limits is part of leaving your childhood behind," DuBois said, "and hopefully never forgetting your potential."
Doug DuBois, Stealing a Door,Cobh, Ireland, 2011 | (Doug DuBois)
With his keen observational eye, DuBois was able to witness such moments in part because the families were so welcoming, literally opening their doors and inviting the outsider into their homes. Eventually, even the teens took to the middle-aged photographer. "Over the years they really began to accept me," he said. "Earning that trust is a privilege. I owed it to them to create a book and a gesture that was meaningful and respectful."
The forthcoming book, My Last Day at Seventeen (Aperture Foundation), is still a work in progress because DuBois wants to give back to the Russell Heights community. DuBois and Aperture initiated a Kickstarter campaign that, if fulfilled, will assure a copy will be made and given to each of the neighborhood kids. "[My Last Day at Seventeen] is the end of that gesture of giving back," he said.
Doug DuBois, Mary, Cobh, Ireland, 2011 | (Doug DuBois)
Doug DuBois, Jordan up the Pole, Russell Heights, Cobh, Ireland, 2010 | (Doug DuBois)