The photographs that form ‘i’ gestated as I started to feel my way back into photography following a long break. Around that time I was re-discovering the work of Samuel Beckett, specifically the ‘Trilogy’ comprising the novels ‘Molloy’, ‘Malone Dies’ and ‘The Unnameable’. I began to be drawn towards a number of solitary ‘Beckettian’ figures I saw on the streets of Dublin, people I had seen passing me every day who seemed to be treading the same ground, day in, day out.
Mindful of the words that preface Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus’, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent,’ I wondered how I might approach the photographing of these people, who were after all (and who remain) near-total strangers to me. But rather than understanding Wittgenstein’s words as a cautionary note (i.e. if you don’t know people, you shouldn’t photograph them), I read them as an exhortation: specifically, to photograph against all odds, against the limits of knowledge and experience, as per the double-bind of Beckett’s ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’.
The question then became: is it possible to take photographs of these people in such a way that will honour their essential, even existential, distance from me? Is it possible to photograph them in a way that says ‘I won’t gain knowledge of them by photographing them, but maybe something will come from the attempt to, maybe even from the failure to’? This tension between, on the one hand, the attempt, and subsequent failure, to gain knowledge and, on the other, what happens in the act of attempting-then-failing is something that interests me. It’s a contradiction with which many of Beckett’s characters seem to be familiar. It’s also a point at which a representation, in reaching a limit point, acknowledges its status as an act.
In taking these photographs, I tried to strip away many of the elements often expected in street photography - context, obvious biographical cues and signifiers, general ‘background noise’. I shot from above, mostly, and tried to flatten the figures into the pavements and roads, and I usually tried to avoid showing the face. Not showing faces seemed to be a way to evoke the very unknowability of these people and, perhaps, by implication, of all those with whom we have such fleeting, urban encounters.
It could be argued that revealing so few faces results in a ‘turning away’ from the people in these photographs. My intention is quite the opposite. Portrait photography usually finds its expressiveness in faces; I want the viewer to look elsewhere, to find cues other than the obvious ones, to look harder and, if needs be, to infer the missing faces.
I was also conscious of the tradition of aniconism - the ban in certain religions on figuratively depicting the realm of the sacred, understood to include gods themselves, but also the human figure or aspects of the human, such as the face. Not showing the faces of most of the people I photographed seemed to express an attitude of ‘hushed reverence’ towards them, which seemed appropriate for subjects about whom I knew nothing, or almost nothing. They are hidden, the better to be respected.
The title of the book, ‘i’, is a direct reference (or mis-reference) to the title of Beckett’s play, ‘Not I’. But, not wanting to assume any comparability between my work and his, I further negated his negative, the double negative leaving me with a lone ‘i’. Lower case, it seemed to suggest anti-heroism, even stoicism. Italicized, it suggested further possibilities: the shadow cast by a regular, vertical ‘i’; a diminutive self falling, or moving forward to counteract a falling; or a lone figure leaning into a stiff wind on a Dublin street.
— Eamonn Doyle [with John McMahon]