INSIDE STORY: For many people, the thought of entering a derelict house would fill them with dread. For gifted Bailieborough photographer SUELLA HOLLAND, it’s where she finds her Zen. Here she tells DAMIAN McCARNEY about the attraction of Rurex photography, the ethics behind rummaging through someone’s home and why she’s not immune to being occasionally freaked out...
Where some may see ruin, photographer Suella Holland finds beauty. Her photos and short films of derelict houses stand as delicate portraits of lives lived. Such texturally rich photos walk the viewer into the location, you have to resist the urge to finger the flaking sky blue paint, and can almost smell the faint damp odour creeping from the mildewed walls.
In one online photo album a Sacred Heart peers up from a shattered frame on a salmon pink linoleum floor; an elderly stairlift rests forlorn at basecamp, its right arm raised as if calling for time to halt; a bank book lies on its spine, its pages chart the modest lodgements and withdrawals from 1966.
Given the subject matter, it would be forgiveable if the photos were somewhat depressing, but they’re reflective of the photographer’s compassion for those anonymous souls who once resided there. This sense is reflected in the overwhelmingly positive comments left on her website from those who view her images, they are overwhelmingly positive. Often her photos dust off memories of relatives of the viewer.
Originally from Dublin but reared in Navan, Suella now calls Bailieborough home. Her father Robin Wynne was a hobby photographer who taught her the “very basics” of the craft, and bought Suella her first camera, a Nikon FA. From there she undertook a degree in photography. There’s a quirky symmetry to her photographic trajectory as one of her first jobs involved taking photos for an architecture magazine in which she was tasked to make the home look desirable: “Take a nice picture.”
Suella accepts that this fed into what she’s doing now: taking photos of homes which would soon be occupied as opposed to homes no longer occupied.
“When I look back at my photos, going back even in college, from the very beginning no matter where I went or what I took, somewhere along the way there were abandoned buildings in it. So I’ve always had a yearning to photograph dereliction,” she says as we chat over a cuppa in a busy Hotel Bailie.
An inspiration for Suella was the photograph ‘Peeled Paint’ by American photographer Minor White.
“From I saw that picture first in college, and that’s 30 years ago, I absolutely loved it. It’s a very simple picture, but there was so much depth and texture to it, it just really captured me.”
White’s photo, which the Celt draws up online as we’re chatting, is in black and white, yet Suella shoots in colour.
It was 2013 when she regularly began photographing derelict buildings having listened to Drogheda based photographer Judy Boyle give a talk to a camera club on her series of work on abandonment.
“It suddenly dawned on me,” recalls Suella. “I can just do that. I don’t have to take photos of everything. I can actually focus my attention on just abandoned buildings, and that’s when I started - and the first one I went out to shoot was Lisbal National School on the Kingscourt Road.”
To the uninitiated this may seem a curious past-time, but it’s more common amongst photography circles than you’d think; they even have a name for it – Urbex, short for ‘urban exploration’. Of course in the back of beyond, Urbex is a misnomer.
“Some of us call it Rurex - rural exploration,” explains Suella, who photographs under the name Forsaken Ireland.
Suella estimates there to be dozens of Urbexers, but she’s careful of the company she keeps within the Urbex/Rurex community, generally shooting with a photographer called Ireland Deserted.
“There are some people who will do anything to get into a place, they’d sell their grandmother and they don’t care about the place. They’d break in – I don’t break in. If it’s open, it’s an invitation. There are some who will set up their shots – I prefer not to, so I try to get in there before anyone else. To me that spoils its truth.”
How does she decide which buildings to photo?
“You go driving and you jam on the brakes,” she says, letting out a halting screech. “There’s one!”
“Now I know more people it’s word of mouth. Some people would tell you, ‘There’s a house over at such and such if you want to go over there’, but mostly it was just drive-by shootings. Pick them out along the way, make notes and go back to them.”
When it comes to permission to enter the building she “plays it by ear”.
“It depends on the building. If it’s a house and the door’s open, you’re not going to find anyone who owns it – not easily. They could have emigrated and their last remaining family live in America.
“You just go early, and go in. You’re not there to do any damage. There’s a quote – I can’t remember who it’s by ‘Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints’ – there’s another bit, but they’re the two bits I stick by. I take photographs, I leave footprints, but I never take anything from the sites, I leave it as I find it. To me that’s very important.”
It pains her when she does encounter vandalism.
“It’s heart-breaking to see it. It’s already heart-breaking watching its demise just by nature, but when they’ve added to it, wantonly just destroyed things – what’s the point?”
Her images speak of the respect she holds for the property and its former owners.
“I try to create an essence of the people who have been there. Obviously I don’t know who’s been there, but you get a sense of a place from visiting. I like to take a bit of time and walk around a place first before I take pictures and try to bring forth a sense of the people who used to live there, and a sense of their lives and to portray that in a positive way. Not to just take pictures of things that look like they’re all worn out and on their last legs.”
As such she finds the most successful are when she’s the first person in.
“It’s the holy grail in a way. When you walk in somewhere and the table is set and the plate is there, the knife and fork is there in front of the TV and the range has the kettle on it - it’s as if they got sucked up out of their chairs and disappeared. That happens quite a bit – it’s unreal when it does happen. You just walk in, and you have to question: is there actually anybody living here? Because you wouldn’t’ be sure.”
Sadly she has come across people “living in the worst of circumstances” where she had thought the home was uninhabited. She’s reported such cases to gardaí, and generally, they already know. She tells of one house with boarded up windows yet it’s home to someone.
“Its’ also incredibly scary if you do find somebody,” she says with a nervous laugh.
And for them the Celt speculates.
“And for them too,” she echoes, and recalls one in the centre of County Cavan. “We went down this laneway to it. The door was hanging off the hinges, the windows were all smashed – you could see into the kitchen – there was a cooker in the middle of the floor with rusty tin cans on top of it. To all intents and purposes there couldn’t be anyone living there. But there were blankets and things thrown on the hedges as if they were drying. So we kind of called out and heard some movement upstairs and next thing we saw these gnarled hands upstairs from fingerless gloves over the window frame. We ran! We ran so fast. I’m sure he got an awful fright as well, but we legged it. You wouldn’t put a dog in it,” she recalls and speculates the person has probably refused offers of alternative accommodation.
Just because she has embraced Rurexism, doesn’t mean she’s immune to the spooky feeling many of us get from a derelict house.
“I’m not a ghosty person,” she says by way of assurance. “There was one house in particular - I photographed the kitchen, photographed the livingroom, all was fine – went into the bedroom and got this overwhelming feeling of get out! The woman’s passport, photographs, everything were still in the room. I did a couple of quick photos and legged it out of the room really really quickly.
“The rest of the house was fine – it was just that one room that had this really eerie ‘I don’t want you in here’ feeling – so I was like, ‘I’m outta here’. If it had been the whole house I’d have put it down to my imagination, but it was that one room.”
That was the exception. Generally, upon entering a house Suella discovers her “headspace”. She becomes immersed in the mindfulness of composing pictures taken with available natural light using 30 second exposures - which she edits minimally. Like the properties, she wants to leave the photos as untouched as possible - “twenty seconds on Photoshop is more than enough for any picture”, she declares.
“To me it’s headspace. I call it my Zen. I’m concentrated in what I’m doing, I’m looking around, I’m soaking in the atmosphere and I’m completely absent from any worries and troubles. It’s my time. And it’s my escape, and for me that’s the most important thing of it all. It’s the only type of photography that actually does that for me, that really lets me escape.”
She insists she will not contrive a shot – she may move something out of the way, but never into the way.
“It drives me mad. I see all these pictures and they’re all perfectly aligned and the statue of Jesus is there and the two candles beside it, I’m going – ‘It’s so set up’. So, no I don’t. I like to get in there and photograph it as it is. I might move a plastic bucket or a yellow bag out of the way because it’s spoiling everything, but that would be it. I’m really a bit of a purist.”
So what themes lie behind the images? She’s not really taken by the straight metaphor of the ageing process - our gradual dilapidation and ultimate dereliction.
“I think I see it more as a case of layers: that even though shit may have happened, even though life might have made you feel ugly on the inside or life might have thrown stuff at you that makes you feel unbeautiful, that no matter where you are in it, there is beauty. Even if it looks like it’s all decaying on the outside, there’s still beauty underneath and it’s within us – it’s within everybody and it’s within all of these places.”
Suella expands further: “Perhaps that’s part of the abandonment and love of it all – destruction, but the beauty that’s in the destruction. And even when you pull back the layers there’s still beauty deeper behind it all. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
She finds parallels in the Japanese concept of Kintsugi, which embraces damage.
“If you have a bowl or something and it’s broken,” explains Suella, “they redecorate it by adding in gold leaf or gold paint and give it a whole new lease of life, because the history of that bowl is what’s important. And it creates a whole new history in rejuvenating it. So in a way I’m trying to give these houses a new lease of life.”
Do you ever think - God what if someone does this in the future to my house?
“I’ve been thinking if I left my house to the Urbex community they could come and photograph it,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned up some day – ‘Oops I thought your house was derelict’,”
Does it look derelict?
“It does after a bad weekend!”
- To see Suella Holland’s work, search Forsakeneire on Facebook.