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How the Twilight Together photo project captured the mood (and hearts) of the nation

We spoke to photographer Ruth Medjber about putting the project together this summer.

IN MARCH OF this year, things changed utterly for people across Ireland. All of a sudden we were all being told to stay indoors. The impact this had on people was immense – but out of the darkness came an enterprising spirit.

One of those who used their fear to spur them on to boost others and capture the mood of the nation was Dublin-based photographer Ruth Medjber.

Her Twilight Together photography series saw her visiting people across the country to photograph them in their homes. The idea struck such a chord that she soon had a book deal – and that book is now nominated for an Irish Book Award, in the Best Irish Published Book category which is sponsored by TheJournal.ie.

‘My job was gone from nearly overnight’

“It really started in early March, because I am normally a music photographer and the music industry was one of the first put on pause,” explained Medjber of where it all began. “I always say I had a bit of a head start, as my job was gone from nearly overnight from March 8. I had a good few weeks of absolute fear and not knowing if there was government support. Feeling uncertainty – especially when you’re self employed and you don’t have any fallback.”

After a few weeks of “absolute loneliness and despair”, Medjber decided she needed a project to get her out of the dark place she was in. “I’m a photographer and it’s in me… it’s the only thing I’ve known, the only thing I do and only thing I’ll ever do,” she said. 

She tried a few different things, but then remembered an idea she’d had back when she studied for her BA in Photography. “I had wanted to photograph people in their windows.” She had shelved the idea back then, as at that age she “didn’t have the capability of getting any project to a level where it would have an emotional response for people”.

But now she knew that things had changed. “Sitting here in my apartment looking out to the courtyard at people sitting in their houses and turning on the big light as the nights got dark, the messages on the telly were all saying stay at home… I was thinking everyone is at home feeling miserable, and for once the whole country is in the same place. The original idea suddenly had relevance.”

Plus, taking the photos through glass meant both she and the participants could stay safe. 

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_DSC3876-Edit Dena, John and baby

On 23 March she took the first photo, of close friends and their baby. When she arrived, it hit home how much things had changed. “I’d normally let myself in to the kitchen, play with the baby, maybe stay over. This was weird – I went over to their house, my hand went to the door, I couldn’t let myself in. This realisation that this might be for the foreseeable future, it was scary.” 

When she got back into her car after taking the photos, Medjber felt “this overwhelming sense of sadness, because I didn’t want to go home to my empty apartment on my own – I wanted to go and watch telly with my mates.”

But when she looked at the picture, she could feel its emotional impact.

And I thought, if I’m feeling it, maybe others can feel it.

‘Who am I to say no?’

She decided to take 16 portraits, and post them all on Instagram.

When she did post them all, “jaysus, it went mad”, said Medjber. The Irish Times put one on the front of the newspaper the next day, and Medjber woke up to 400 emails from people asking for portraits or saying they were moved by her work.

“I was crying reading it all. And I thought god, if people really want to be a part of this, who am I to say no?”

Una and John John and Una

Her project also caught the attention of publishers, and she chose to go with Sandycove, Ireland’s Penguin imprint. Knowing that her editor Fiona Murphy was a fan of her music photography work and understood her style helped in the decision. While Medjber maintained she was a photographer and not a writer, Murphy told her she had faith in her ability to write the book. 

After signing up with Sandycove, Medjber decided to make the project a national one. “It has to be a very fair representation of people in 2020 and all we’ve gone through,” she said. She spent hours travelling around the country while every county was in lockdown, usually travelling alone at midnight to get back to Dublin. 

It was very important for Medjber that the book be as inclusive as possible. “I grew up as a mixed race child in Ireland looking in magazines and in galleries and never seeing representation of mixed-race Irish women,” she said. “I always want to be as inclusive as possible in case there are kids out there looking for themselves in works of art.”

With that in mind, she wanted to make sure the book had a good representation of “every culture, race, religion, ethnicity, every personality type, every profession”.

Zai the Connemara pony Zai the Connemara pony

‘Emotional rollercoaster’

Before she visited the homes, she sent an email with a time slot, asking people to be at their window in whatever they wanted to wear. The people could pose however they wanted (some held babies, others their pets). All Medjber asked was people put light sources like lamps near the window, and that the main light in the room was turned on. 

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“Everybody’s personality comes through,” she said. “Some people did address the severity of the pandemic. Some people are so giddy about seeing a different person in real life they are beaming, having the time of their life in front of the camera.”

The book is “an emotional rollercoaster, like lockdown was for a lot of people”, said Medjber. “I do address and acknowledge the grief, loss and sacrifice people endured during lockdown, and I chat to people who have lost family, friends, career opportunities.” 

“We have to also acknowledge there is hope in all of this,” she added.

It’s not a doom and gloom book. There is a healthy amount of trauma and heartbreak.

Medjber said she “was writing the stories to the pregnancy bumps in the pictures”, addressing her words to those who might not remember what it was like to live through 2020. “I wanted them to actually understand what we had gone through.”

The participants in the project included her own parents. “My parents aren’t cocooning age but I felt this obligation to keep them safe,” said Medjber. 

She said there were lots of heartwarming moments while she travelled around the country – like being offered safe accommodation that was empty, and having socially distanced drinks with people who left a bag of wine, beers and soft drinks for her under a tree.

Regina in Clifden B&B The Clifden B&B

“I ended up chatting with them for probably about an hour at midnight and looking over Ardmore Bay, which was the most divine day. It was the summer solstice. I thought, ‘the world is on fire and I’m really lucky’. There’s a lot of times where I walked away from people’s houses so overwhelmed and emotional.”

I am quite a level headed person, especially when I’m working, but I was so emotional when I was doing this – I am living through the lockdown as well.

The book was launched on 5 November, and was due to be accompanied by a gallery space at Dean Art Studios on Harcourt St in Dublin, where people could relax in their pod and look at the images. That has had to be put on hold until Level 5 restrictions are lowered, but in the meantime Medjber has been using the space to hold socially-distanced livestreams with bands. 

Reflecting on what the project has done, she says it gave her hope at a strange and difficult time.

“I don’t know if people will ever understand what they did for me during all of this,” said Medjber, who has received lots of thank you cards. “They kept me going – they rescued me from the darkness that was lockdown one.”

Twilight Together: Portraits of Ireland At Home is published by Sandycove. The book is nominated in the TheJournal.ie-sponsored category at the An Post Irish Book Awards – Best Irish Published Book. To vote for your favourite nominated books, visit this link. 

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