Paul Kelly has been chronicling life in Dublin’s North City Center through his ongoing photography project, North Wall Series, since 2014. Kelly lives in the area and has captured sporting events and community gatherings as well as incidents occasional antisocial behavior.
The Silver Lining exhibition, featuring nine photos from the series, opened at the Cloud Cafe on North Strand Road last week and will remain on display until the end of September. The theme of the exhibit is water and community engagement with water.
Kelly says the construction of high-rise apartment buildings and the installation of greenery along the canal over the past decade has gentrified North Wall. Many of his images depict this transformation and the coexistence between newcomers and long-time residents.
“There’s a real sense of pride in being there,” he says. “The strength of the community is that it has always existed. Everyone knows each other and sticks together. All of this external influence has to fit into the existing community.
His two favorite photos from the exhibit are Dock Life and Empires because he thinks they best capture the integration of old and new in the area.
Dock Life depicts a girl sunbathing on the green in front of one of the new apartment buildings while local children jump off the bridge in the background.
“In Dock Life, you have the two communities that come together as one because they share the space,” Kelly explains. “I love this photo because everyone is happy to be together and the area is used equally.”
Meanwhile, his black-and-white photo Empires shows children sitting on the wooden pallets they burn on Halloween while a luxury apartment complex dominates the background.
Kelly’s introduction to photography came after he used a small inheritance to buy a second-hand camera and join a photography club in Cork. “I had done art in school and always felt like I could see, so the camera was the perfect way to capture that.”
After college he moved to Seattle, Washington, where he kept a photo diary, shooting one roll of film a week. Kelly describes it as a visual diary, “much like Instagram these days.”
He then attended the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), now Technological University Dublin, where he studied photography. There, he was selected to photograph the public and private life of former President Mary MacAleese.
“At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to photograph people,” he says.
In addition to photojournalism, Kelly photographs weddings and does commercial work. “It is very difficult to specialize in Ireland because it is a small market. The common thread for me is all those who have a beating heart, so people or animals,” he adds.
Prior to the birth of her son in 2013, Kelly had traveled the world on assignments for nonprofit organizations. He would then extend his stay and shoot his own projects.
“When my boy was born, I realized I didn’t have that kind of freedom to leave. But I realized pretty quickly that this whole life was right on my doorstep,” Kelly says of her interest in the locality.
After showing up at North Wall sports clubs, churches, drug treatment centers and community centers, he took to the streets. “If you arrive as a foreigner and you start taking pictures of people and you don’t ask permission or engage with them, you immediately become a target of suspicion,” he says.
Street photography was risky. One Halloween eve, Kelly was taking pictures at the docks when a man wearing a balaclava and a gun told her to stop. Kelly pushed open the shutter again. The man then leaned over and cocked the gun near Kelly’s head.
As he took off the balaclava, Kelly recalled, the man lowered his gun, laughed and asked, “We got you, Paul?”
“I think you guys got me,” he said in response, his hands shaking.
Most of his interactions were less remarkable.
Shooting with a 50mm lens allows Kelly to be close to his subjects without being intrusive. He always asks permission before engaging the shutter. As he and his camera are a familiar presence in the neighborhood, locals often ask to be photographed.
In addition to photography, Kelly interviewed people from the community for a short film titled North Wall Stories which aired on RTÉ. The documentary Sheriff Street to Delphi, based on Kelly’s concept and also shown on RTÉ, followed six youngsters on their journey from North Wall to Delphi in County Mayo, where they learn to fish for salmon and kayak.
The Silver Lining exhibit is free and open to the public. Tickets can be booked through Eventbrite.