The statement that goes alongside former GCN staff member, Paul Connell’s new photography exhibition at Dublin’s LGBT Centre, Outhouse says it “aims to recognise and personalise the legacy of older lesbians and gay men, and to acknowledge the contributions their lives and struggles have made to the political and social fabric of contemporary Irish society.”
Photography Older LGBTs – Pre-decriminalisation – Positive Aging
“When I saw the photograph, it hit me really hard,
what extraordinary lives they must have lived.
Although the project was kicked off by one photograph of an older queer couple, it began on a less conscious level for Connell with the passing of his mother in late 2016.
“That was a shock,” he says. “The idea of loss, the fear of loss, of a life vanishing with no chance of whatever their achievements were being recorded, being recognised. Unconsciously, that was motivating me, and then purely by accident, I photographed a lesbian couple in their late 70s, early 80s. “When I saw the photograph, it hit me really hard, what extraordinary lives they must have lived. To reach this point as a couple in love, to have been feminists, queers, lesbians, and never to have conformed, not having gone through the period of being married and leaving husbands – they lived in a period when they probably didn’t even have words for it, yet somehow there they were together.”
“There was a lot of whitewashing of the old queers, or the more radical ideas, so I wanted to bring it down to seeing the individual rather than ‘the gay community’.
To begin with, Connell continued taking photographs of older lesbians, but as time went on word of mouth grew, and men started coming into it. “All the images are taken the same way,” Connell explains. “I was looking at historical references, particularly early German photography, but also when you photograph everybody in exactly the same way, you’re creating a sort of visual categorisation. What happens is that the individual stands out; you’re identifying the individual. “Post-referendum there’s been a lot of people asking ‘is this what we fought for?’ There was a lot of whitewashing of the old queers, or the more radical ideas, so I wanted to bring it down to seeing the individual rather than ‘the gay community’ as we have come to be seen. “There’s a lot of this work happening now. The anniversaries of British and Irish decriminalisation, GCN turning 30, Outhouse is 25 this year; there’s a lot of interest in and recognition of where we came from, of our history.”
“I believe that we are never more beautiful than we are now. This is who I am, scars and all.”
Connell, who is in his 50s, was surprised by some of the things that arose while working on the project. “I think there is a lot of vulnerability in the pictures,” he says. “One thing that came up for me was the price people paid emotionally, the damage inflicted by being out and having to live your life like that. There was a period when every gay man was a criminal under the law, and that had a huge effect. We have to look at it and say, ‘they did this to me, but I’m here’. There’s a real recognition of personal lives, of achievements. “They lived in a period of utter transgression too, and there was a lot of fun in that, being transgressive and developing ideas. There was hardness to life, but you have to balance it up with a lot of craic going on.”
There were other learnings for the artist. “I think I learned to respect my elders and to see myself as an elder too,” he says. “To recognise the value that we as elders still have to give, which must be recognised and allowed to be shared with the people who possibly dismiss and make invisible all those people who are aging. “Recognising my own aging process, I’m thinking I’m probably better now than I’ve been in my whole life. “I believe that we are never more beautiful than we are now. This is who I am, scars and all. It’s about finding our own strength to look at ourselves as we age, that’s most important.”
Path Finders opens at Outhouse on April 19,