Susan O’Gorman and the Domestic Workers Action Group
Funded by the Arts Council Artist in the Community Scheme
Opening Doors is a collaboration between the Domestic Workers Action Group (previously known as the Domestic Workers Support Group) and artist Susan Gogan, resulting in the creation of six large scale colour photographic pieces, complimented by a series of black & white documentary works. The project culminated in an exhibition at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, opening on International Women’s Day, 2007.
Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) is a national organisation working to promote justice, empowerment and equality for migrant workers and their families.
The Domestic Workers Action Group was established by MRCI as a response to the growing reports of difficulties experienced by migrant domestic and care workers. Based in Dublin, this is a heterogeneous and fluid group with a core of approximately 30 women predominantly from the Philippines, but also with members from India, Pakistan, Georgia and Trinidad & Tobago at the time this project took place. Through the artistic collaboration process, the group seeks to empower themselves, challenge their position of marginality in Irish society, generate publicity about their situation and make visible the positive and invaluable contribution they make to Irish society. This project ran consecutively with a campaign for statutory protections and a Joint Labour Committee in order to establish minimum pay and conditions for employment for this sector.
The group had a particular interest in engaging with photography as an art practice and I was approached by project co-ordinator Edel McGinley, now Director of MRCI, who was aware of my artistic practice to date. When approached, I immediately recognised the potential for a new direction in staged photography made possible by the collaborative process. I realised there was now an important opportunity for the Domestic Workers Action Group to take control of the domestic space and create their own symbolic references within the work we would produce during the course of the project. Through their active participation in cultural production, photographic representation could be placed in the hands of the women themselves. During two initial key meetings with Edel, we were agreed that the staged format and staging process offered a unique way to truly collaborate where the women could publicly address complex issues of particular concern – lack of privacy, isolation, social control, racism, manipulation, unclear boundaries in relation to working hours – and at the same time I could stay true to, and further develop, my own working methods and artistic practice.
Opening Doors: Susan O’Gorman and the Domestic Workers Action Group
The scale and complexity of the project presented many challenges when it came to the organisation of the final staged photo shoots. Firstly as project coordinator, Edel had the difficulty of coordinating what is essentially a fluid group whose participants can vary from month to month. Dividing the group into 6 smaller sub-groups (with each sub-group developing one image) ensured a degree of consistency from one meeting to the next. Secondly, roles I had suggested the women take on in preparation for the shoots – props, clothing, documentation etc. – proved to be very impractical given the length of time between contact meetings (4 weeks) and the long working hours of most of the group (6 days per week, 12 hours per day on average). Also the task of transporting the women to shooting locations was immense, as they did not have their own transport, so on occasion the hire of a mini-bus was needed for this purpose.
Despite organisational challenges however, the photo shoots were really where the energy of the project came together and were an extremely rewarding experience for us all.
There was an intense focusing and discussion of ideas in order to finalise decisions about image content, such as props, hair and clothing, body language and how to convey the relationship and bond between the carer and child or older person. The group as a whole become intensely engaged with the creative process with an enormous amount of attention paid to detail. The projection of responsibility and professionalism in their working practices was of utmost importance.
Complimenting these collaborations is a series of black & white documentary works. Some members of the group did not have cameras to complete this part of the project, so to overcome this we purchased four inexpensive 35mm film cameras to be used by the group on a rotation basis. Through these individual artistic visions, the audience gain access to both public and private spaces that illustrate a diversity of experiences of migration and of living and working in Ireland. We see images of friendships, Dublin’s city streets, private moments of contemplation, and loving images of family both here in Ireland and abroad. Migrant domestic workers’ personal narratives and interpretations of place help us to understand both the material realities of migration and the women’s shifting subjectivity from a unique perspective of spatial mobility.
In addition to its launch at the Gallery of Photography, this project has been exhibited a number of times including two other high profile exhibitions, The Mermaid Arts Centre, Co. Wicklow, 2008, and Domestic Workers Action Week, 2010, where it was exhibited at Liberty Hall, Trinity College and Dublin City Council Civic Offices. Shortly following its completion, members of the Domestic Workers Action Group travelled to the International Labour Organisation Conference using the project as a support while speaking about their personal experience of the issues under discussion. The images from Opening Doors continue to support their campaigns for equality both as women and as workers.
In the words of Elsa Fontanoz, one of the women who spoke publicly at the Gallery of Photography exhibition opening, “…now we can finally be seen”.
About the Artist
I am an artist and filmmaker who lives and works in Dublin. My practice involves making photographic and film works which deal with the power inherent in the design of our contemporary cities and how we as individuals can interact with our built environment in a political way. I am currently producing an experimental film work challenging the private corporate ownership of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz. I was invited to speak about this work at Art / Memory / Place, Irish Museum of Modern Art, with Dr. Karen Till, Maynooth University Ireland, and visual artist Beth O”Halloran, 2016. A trailer for this film work screened at the Irish Film Institute in March 2017 and the research for this work was conducted as part of IADT’s ARC Masters programme, from which I graduated in 2017.