Christopher Mear on Hide That Can by Deirdre O’Callaghan

A lone, bearded, ginger man, chewing on the hair of his moustache. Avoiding eye contact by pulling his green, stained and faded hat over his eyes. A thick brown stain on the inside of the collar of his jacket. The blood red of the inside cover, followed by a dedication to Joe McGarry. Is this the stranger that greeted me, so warm yet shy on the front cover? I don’t know. Another turn of a page confronts you with a handwritten sign; “We admitted we were powerless against alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.”

Four photographs of Arlington House, London. Men passing, entering, exiting and lingering outside, lead into a “rant” from the U2 frontman, Bono. He concludes with one of only two mentions of the photographs that follow; “These photographs have a dignity and humour that make them a true record of lives lived… Photography so often pitches the instant against the eternal, and so many beautiful faces are really not… these photographs are true, and the truth is always beautiful and disturbing.”

Men dominate the pages. Some of them seem confident. Playing with me. Joking. Laughing. Others are quiet, looking on from the background. Peering over a shoulder. The combination of image and text allows me to hear their voices. I replace the photographer. I’m there. Intimate moments shared with men with bruises and stitches on their face. Stitches echoed by those that bind the book, sometimes running right through the battered faces of these kind and brutally quick witted men.

Men taking regular toilet breaks behind trees as they embark on a day trip to the seaside. Echoes of childhood by the sea, with Mojo sitting on a horse and cart amusement ride clutching a bottle of super strong lager. A glance down from the end of the pier reveals the violent tide raging towards a child lost in the excitement of chasing away the seagulls, before a moving series of portraits of men in their bedrooms, as they delve into their past and their relationship with alcohol.

The book ends with a series of pictures of the residents on a trip back to Ireland, where many of the men who reside at Arlington House migrated from during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, in search of work. “Some people in life, if they lose out they throw in the towel. You never throw in the towel ‘cause tomorrow is another day.” John explains as we stand at the edge of a beach and look out to sea, watching a lone man float away.

Empathy, compassion, humour and a generous ear. Hide That Can, for me, effortlessly applies the best qualities of both human nature and photography. The photographer is invisible. The medium of photography irrelevant. For me, it offers an outstretched hand, an invitation, to anybody who needs or wants to accept it. Photographer or not, it’s work like this that recognises our common humanity and vulnerability. It not only educates me, but it makes me feel less alone. The ultimate, rather extraordinary, accomplishment for a book, in my opinion.

- Published by Photograd, 2017

Christopher Mear on Just Passing By

I was born in 1990, as coal mining stopped in NW Leicestershire. I grew up in the village of Donisthorpe on the NW Leicestershire / South Derbyshire border. My childhood home sat directly opposite what was for over a century the main entrance to Donisthorpe Colliery, the old beating heart of my former mining village. But I knew nothing of the industry that shaped the social, economic and geographic landscape of where I grew up. Instead I knew a huge field, with tall grass, tall enough for me to lose myself in my imagination on a daily basis.

One day as I was playing in that field I fell over a big stone that had the numbers 1-9-1-9 carved into it. I remember finding the discovery very exciting and it soon become part of the scene I was acting out that day. It took the role of a bomb, if I remember rightly. Quite likely as an unexploded bomb had been discovered in that field a few weeks or months earlier, and me and my Grandma were evacuated to the community centre to feast on pop and sandwiches for a few hours. But as the curtain fell on my scene that day and my Mum called me in for tea, as with every other scene I ever acted out in that field, the stone was as good as forgotten forever.

Over a decade later - now a 21 year old photographer - I received an artist bursary from the Transform Arts Programme at Snibston Discovery Museum. This provided me creative support and guidance and the task of proposing a project in response to Snibston. I wanted to build on growing photographic interests; the idea of "creative wandering", and documentary photography, at this moment I also began to realise the huge social, economic and geographic change that had been occurring around me since the day I was born. This soon led me back to Donisthorpe, around the corner from my childhood home, into the home of former miner, Johnny Hair.

Johnny told me a lot that day, but the story that really sticks in my memory is the one about the day the demolition began at Donisthorpe Colliery:

He (somehow) walked onto the site and spotted a brick above the door of one of the buildings - a brick that had the numbers 1-9-1-9 carved into it. He asked one of the demolition crew if they would leave that brick behind for him, and they agreed. That brick was left behind. Long after every other trace of the villages coal mine had been removed, that brick remained. Silent, still, unassuming and forgotten, as Johnny got on with his life. The grass that I remember so fondly, grew around it, slowly hiding it from sight and ultimately leading to my trip that day.

Just before the turn of the millennium the site was finally purchased for redevelopment, but before the builders moved in Johnny did. He collected that brick from where it lay for the best part of a decade, and he relocated it to mark the former main entrance to Donisthorpe Colliery.

The brick has been moved slightly to the right since then to sit on some nice block-paving, and Johnny and a few friends have provided a plaque which they paid for after doing "some interview about the National Forest".

- From Just Passing By, Published by Snibston Discovery Museum, 2014 (revised, February 2020)

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