Mud. Our bodies are buried beneath it so that life can thrive, an endless cycle of death and birth. It surrounds us all, but for some, its presence is more conspicuous than for others. When he landed on a farm in the rural Irish county of Wexford, this is what the photographer Luis Alberto Rodriguez discovered.
For the people of County Wexford, it has been part of their history right from the beginning. “When I researched the town, I read that the name Wexford came from the Vikings who founded it,” Luis says. “In Norwegian, its original name Veisafjǫrðr refers to mud. It’s the mixture of earth and water: two elements that are vital for our own survival, and it also leaves imprints, much like the families who had lived there for 300 years. Everything there was growing from the ground up.”
Having been born and raised in New York City to two parents from the Dominican Republic, and now based in Berlin, the mucky stuff hasn’t really played much of a part in Luis’s life. In fact, he arrived in Ireland to shoot his latest series -- now a photobook called People of the Mud -- almost without planning it. Having earned a clutch of prizes at the 2017 Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography in France (an LVMH venture, no less), the following year he was offered an artist residency in collaboration with Futures, an EU art scheme, and Photo Ireland. Knowing little about the landscape except for the obvious cliches peddled by outsiders, he went beyond the cities and into rural areas to learn more.
What he found there was a community thriving on tradition in an ever-changing world. All he had to do was project that honestly from a perspective that made sense to him. A dancer before he picked up the camera, the body and movement has always been his go-to: “I wanted to see how I could 'physicalise' Irish cultural heritage,” he says. Initially, that manifested in an imaginary, large family portrait that highlighted their tight-knit relationship. He envisioned an entire family unit, dogs and neighbours included, almost wrestling: “so close to each other that it’s almost suffocation”. But when he soon realised such a project wouldn’t be possible, he turned to those who surrounded him, the traditional Irish dancers, farmers and hurlers (a hockey-like game that’s been played since prehistoric times on the land), and captured them instead.
The hurling men came first. “I’d watch YouTube videos of hurling in slow motion, and freeze frame, as they scratched each other and lifted each other up. All of this was happening, and there was a real sense of intimacy and community,” he says. Through the players, he started meeting the rest. Some of the hurler’s friends did traditional Irish dancing. The farm workers surrounded him everyday.
The result is a series of semi-constructed images that feel both ancient and contemporary at once: each one a symbol of movement, reliance and being brilliantly alive. Luis' skills as a dancer manifest in tightly choreographed portraits of the hurlers resting in a formation that requires trust and dependency on each other. An Irish dancer on some disused train tracks, in full regalia, almost looks ethereal.
Luis intended for these images to highlight the beauty of a culture the Irish have had to hold onto, ever since the British colonised it. “I wanted to show dignity,” he insists. “The book is called People of the Mud, and alongside young people I wanted to photograph an older generation, who were the keepers of those traditions, who kept them alive. These activities may not be so popular outside of Ireland, but I wanted something that felt very specific to the place where I was. Understanding the history between England and Ireland gave me fuel to turn my lens towards practises that weren’t necessarily allowed back then.” Captured throughout the time Luis spent among the people of County Wexford, this is a pure, heartfelt homage to a brilliant culture that carries on in the souls of the people who live it every day.
People of the Mud by Luis Alberto Rodriguez, published by Loose Joints, will launch at London's Donlon Books on 12 March. Pre-order it here.
All images Luis Alberto Rodriguez (2020)
Courtesy of Loose Joints