Photographer Ruth Medjber experienced the kindness of strangers this summer as she trekked across the country working on her new book Twilight Together. Ruth began taking window portraits of people at home when her regular gigs as a music photographer stopped. She took to the road once the travel restrictions were lifted, and just kept going. It was hard graft, as Ruth told Oliver Callan on The Ryan Tubridy Show:
“I went for three-and-a-half months shooting every single night.”
If the work was intense, it was lightened by the generosity of her subjects. Ruth recalls the people in Ardmore who put their glamping pods at her disposal, so she wouldn’t have to drive home after the shoot. Then a family in the same village left her a ‘care package’ of juices, wine and soft drinks under a bush:
“They were like, ‘We want you to have a drink. We can’t come out. We’re going to have a drink through the window.’ So I stood there, taking in the sight of Ardmore Bay, talking to these strangers who were now my best friends and it was under the summer solstice that night and it was lovely. And then I went back to stay in these glamping pods that are on an open zoo farm thing; fell asleep to the sound of donkeys and pigs and all sorts. And I thought, this is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done, but it’s lovely.”
Ruth says she came up with the concept of capturing people framed by the windows of their homes back when she was a student, but then parked it for a number of years. With the pandemic, the idea suddenly seemed more relevant, and after a dry-run with some obliging friends, Ruth says she had a kind of epiphany:
“When I got back in the car and I looked at the photographs we’d just taken, I went, ‘I think I’ve captured something more than just my mates at a window here. I think this is going to be important.’ And I just kind of ran with it.”
Ruth had several offers to publish a collection of portraits, and she spent some time considering which one would best suit her vision. She was determined that the book would be true to Ireland’s diversity in as many ways as possible:
“I didn’t want it just to be a book of my friends or a book of my contacts, or whatever. I wanted to make sure that every race, every religion, every culture, every profession, every type of personality, even though they might not be in my social circle, I wanted to widen my circle, get myself out there, meet new people and make sure they found a place in this book.”
Presenting a cross-section of Ireland, where everyone can see themselves represented is important to Ruth on a personal level, as she explains to Oliver:
“I grew up in a mixed-race family and when I was growing up in the ‘90s looking at art in galleries and in books like this, I never would have seen myself represented, not in a positive way anyway. So for me, it was absolutely essential to get every type of person in this book, and I think I might have got it!”
Oliver wondered if people were nervous of being judged for their taste or housekeeping skills, as glimpses of their homes are visible in the photos. Ruth says she didn’t mind what anyone’s house looked like when she was shooting, but she suddenly understood fear of judgement when she got around to taking a self-portrait for the book:
“It was only when the camera was turned on myself did I have the immense fear of exactly that: People are going to be judging my house! So I kind of went around tidying stuff up and I was like, am I wearing the right thing?”
When it came to the state of people’s windows though, Ruth says she wasn’t averse to doing a drive-by Marie Kondo if necessary:
“I kind of gauged, when I got there, and if the window was just dirty enough to be kinda cute, I’d leave it. But if it was absolutely filthy, I had a bottle of Windolene in the car and I’d take it out and I’d clean their windows for them, ‘cos I couldn’t see them otherwise!”
As day faded into night, Ruth says she took great care to capture the exceptional qualities twilight added to her portraits:
“Twilight’s just gorgeous. There’s something magical about it, isn’t it, when the day turns into night. There’s this gorgeous ambiance and the cosy vibe that we get. It’s real kind of Christmassy and warm and welcoming and inviting.”
There’s a fascinating chat about how Ruth captured that lighting sweet spot, how her favourite image in the book changes with her mood and more about her career as a music photographer in the full interview with Oliver Callan here.
Twilight Together by Ruth Medjber is published by Doubleday Ireland and is available now.
Ruth’s book was launched (virtually) on 5 November 2020, with musical performances by Paul Noonan and Sinead White and poetry from Stephen James Smith. You can find out more about it and about Ruth’s work as a music photographer here.
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