Alison McLoughlin used to sit in her dad’s car, double-parked outside the Dublin Camera Exchange on South Great George’s Street, and wait for him to come back with two or three envelopes full of photographs.
She remembers the anticipation, she says. “You know how, now, everything is instant? You delete a picture and take it again?”
Not back then. Maybe the roll had been in the camera for weeks. Maybe he had raced through a whole roll shooting a single subject.
“And you’d be saying, ‘When are you getting those pictures?’… It sounds weird even saying that, doesn’t it?” she says.
She has a child of her own now. “He’ll never experience excitement like that,” she says.
Her dad Tom McLoughlin started taking pictures in 1979, the year his first child – her older sister Paula – was born. He never stopped.
Almost by accident, his focus became the people and places in Fatima Mansions, the housing complex in Rialto where he grew up.
Over the years, he amassed a collection of, he guesses, around 10,000 photographs. Until recently, they were all in a press in his house.
But now, with the help of a friend, his daughter, and an arts studio in Rialto, he’s sifting through them to compile an archive.
“How did I learn? I didn’t learn. I still don’t know anything about cameras,” Tom says.
When he laughs, he sounds like a much younger man. He’s always had an automatic camera so he doesn’t have to deal with focusing or f-stops.
Tom turned 70 this year. He has piercing ice-blue eyes and a neat, white beard. He and Alison are sitting in Studio 468, in St Andrew’s Community Centre on the South Circular Road. This is where they’ve been doing the sorting.
Why did he start taking all the photos?
“It’s not a big deal. I know everyone else has made a big deal out of it, but …”
Alison cuts him off, keeps him on track. “How did you get started literally taking photographs?”
When his two daughters were born, he wanted to chronicle their lives. Like many others who grew up in Dublin years back, Tom has almost no pictures from his own childhood. There’s one taken at his confirmation in March 1960 – the school took it.
“I had a great photograph, but my sister stole it on me, of me sitting on the Francis Street market steps, in hobnail boots and shorts and a v-neck Fair Isle jumper when I was two,” Tom says.
Even though the family moved out to Clondalkin after his daughters were born, Tom brought them back to Fatima Mansions almost every day to visit their two grannies.
“He’d be famous for having a camera in his hand,” Alison says. But it was never, ever around his neck.
“You’d be bleeding. You’d be stoned if you … You’d be thrown out of the district! No. No, you had to be really cool,” Tom says. “Even though the practical thing was to have it around your neck.”
He’d carry it around or keep it stashed in his car. He’s taken pictures there continuously from 1979 until “last week”.
He has images of children at their communions, then their weddings. Many are sport-related – Tom managed Fatima’s football club at one time. There are pictures of buildings before and after demolition, and then the new buildings in their places.
“I don’t do it consciously. I don’t try to make a photograph, it’s either there or it isn’t there. I think they look false if you try to orchestrate things,” Tom says.
Tom only takes pictures of things he’s interested in, and he’s always been interested in Rialto, and in Fatima.
“I just remember a lot of happiness there, a lot of good things. And it’s where my roots are,” he says.
Maybe, he says, it’s because he understands it more than most people understand it. It’s his area of expertise, his special subject.
“I understand all the different types of, the levels of living and the levels of intelligence and the levels of … I’m afraid to say some of the levels,” he says.
Recently, for his daughter Paula’s fortieth birthday, when the family got back from a night out, he took some of the photos out of the press. Old ones, of when his kids were small.
“It was great craic,” says Alison.
“It was a good laugh,” says Tom.
But the thought of taking more of them out was daunting, Alison says, because there are so many. “That’s probably why it was never done.”
Seeing others so interested changed that, she says. “Kind of gave you a bit of a different outlook.”
They moved some of the photos into Studio 468, run by arts organisation Common Ground. The studio has hosted artists working on community-based projects since 2001.
The photos are an important part of Dublin’s cultural and social history, says Siobhán Geoghegan from Common Ground. They’ve gotten advice from art historian Catherine Marshall on how to manage the archive’s legacy, she says.
For the last few months, they’ve been sorting the Fatima pictures into sub-categories, like “social”, “football”, “couples”, and “architecture”.
Walking by the Canal
Tom has his favourite photo. In it, a group of young men in shorts and mostly no shirts walk with their backs to the camera, in between blocks of flats.
“It had to be along the canal down here. [They were] walking back towards the shops at Fatima on a magnificent, sunny day. Beautiful. It’s like Spain,” Tom says.
“You could talk about the photograph for about 10 minutes, there’s that much in it. And there’s nothing in it at the same time, you know what I mean?”
Tom examines the photo and points to the different backs. His brother Philip is in it. And a man who lived in a house nearby.
“He’s dead, he’s dead, I don’t know about him,” he says, pointing.
Alison says it was Tom’s friend Tony May who initially thought of archiving the collection. “He thought … they should be seen. There are a lot of people who’ve passed away in the pictures, and there should be an opportunity to see them.”
“I’ve a photograph with eight people in it, and five of them are dead, and nobody’s over 27 or 28,” Tom says.
Alison says quite a lot of the deaths would have been drug-related. She says one of the goals of the archive is to bring up conversations about the community.
The photos evoke different memories for different people. “Some people would be crying looking at a photograph. The next person who looked at it would be bursting out laughing because it would remind them of different times, different things. And I think that’s what photographs should be,” Tom says.
While the photos are out of the press, they’re thinking of letting people have another look at them – a larger exhibition, maybe at the community centre. And once they’re all organised, Alison says, when someone asks for a photo in future, they’ll be easier to find.
A Sidekick Anthropologist
Tom’s friend Tony May, a community worker at St Andrew’s, also grew up in the flats. He and Tom are in the studio today, standing over a table that has some of the pictures that they showed last month on Culture Night, spread out.
They’ve been sidekicks for decades, back to when May was a kid. “He’d come to the barber’s with me and all. I used to go to the barber’s every day, get my hair cut every day. And now I’ve fucking none,” Tom rubs his hand on his head, and laughs.
May was 10 years younger, and Tom used to give the boy 50 pence or a pound to run errands. Sometimes he’d give May money just to sit in the barber shop.
“He was training me into being an anthropologist,” he says.
May says he remembers Tom always carrying the camera around. An extra limb, it seemed.
“I don’t think he even realised that what he was doing was recording. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing,” May says.
Alison said that, when they’re archiving, May and Tom stop and tell stories about every single picture. “We’re like, ‘Come on, come on, if we stop at every picture, we’ll get nowhere.”
May says he thought it was important to do something with Tom’s photographs. “It captures a particular period of time, particularly in Fatima, in people’s lives.”
It was the sense of belonging that sticks with him. “I suppose in your formative years, you’ve been influenced by what went on in Fatima,” he says. “You’re talking about a lot of poverty that existed in the community.”
This morning, May watched a documentary on tenement housing. “You were born into poverty, more or less, impoverished, so there’s a lot of trauma that happened in those communities.”
He pics up a photograph of people sitting next to a brick wall, and like Tom does, points out the people who aren’t alive anymore.
They would be grandfathers and grandmothers now, he says. But “they died very early from drug-related illnesses and stuff like that,” May says. “So how can we tell that story?”
Another meeting with the archivist is next, now that the photos are separated into categories.
“I’m hoping that someday, that some of these photographs can be published … and I just want to assist in that,” May says.