Ross McDonnell‘s Joyrider was the Charcoal Photobook of the Month for October, 2021. Due to production and shipping delays, it only arrived here on December 3. The book is a look inside the now long-demolished Ballymun projects in Dublin, at the young people who hung out in the abandoned housing estate and what they got up to in the months leading up to the Block’s demolition. As one might expect, for whatever reason and on whatever side of the political spectrum, it’s not the most upbeat look at adolescence.
I suspect the gold standard for books like this is probably Jim Goldberg’s Raised By Wolves—not that I’ve spent much time with it, yet—with Mary Ellen Mark’s original Streetwise being the earlier and more classic model. I unboxed Raised By Wolves some time ago and will get around to reviewing it someday; I haven’t been able to find a reasonably-priced copy of the original Streetwise, so I really can’t say. I only bring it up because Blake Andrews mentioned them both a handful of times some months ago, most specifically where he also mentioned my blog and “review” of Girl Pictures in his Insta-review of the Kurland book, and it stuck with me.
Flipping briefly through Raised by Wolves just now, Joyrider is both wildly different and relevantly similar…
The kids of Joyride aren’t running wild in the streets, or if they are, McDonnell doesn’t really photograph them doing so. Mark & Goldberg’s subjects and collaborators were mostly kids living on the streets of Seattle and LA (respectively). It looks to me like the Joyrider kids mostly come from somewhere else and just hang out at “the Block,” as the project is known. They’re cleaner, polished, in ways that the kids in RBW and Streetwise just aren’t. It may be the different time: 1980s vs 1990s vs 2000s; it may be the different place. There’s surely a difference between the social contract in Ireland and that in Washington State and California, and I think I can see this, sorta, in the things the kids get up to.
The kids mostly hang around the few remaining apartment blocks that stand amongst the rubble. We see a few cars and a motorcycle on fire, and a few speeding by, burning rubber. Apparently, if the card that came with the book can be believed—Charcoal include a brief introductory note and a print with every book—”Motorbikes and cars were currency on the Block. The kids would steal cars, buy cars, or find them abandoned overnight. The practice was to take them for joyrides around the Block, then outside and up and down the Irish motorways. … At the end of the joyrides, the cars were most often burned.”*
I suppose the kids in RBW and Streetwise might’ve gone on joyrides in stolen cars and then burned them if they’d thought of it, but I sorta doubt it. The kids I ran with in the 90s—mostly all playacting or, rather, holidaying at being wild-in-the-streets sorts of kids—might’ve talked about it, but never would’ve done it. Even the harder kids we knew, the ones who definitely knew how to boost a car, wouldn’t do much joyriding and definitely wouldn’t burn anything: any cars they boosted were headed to the chop shop; it was a moneymaking venture for them. But, then, we were all more or less bougie American kids. The kids in Joyrider appear to be working class Irish, and there’s quite a bit of difference between growing up under advanced/global capitalism and growing up in a nominally socialist country.
Enough reminiscing… back to the book.
One pair of pictures shows a smirking young man in a hoody one side, and a hoody-covered torso and arm holding what I first thought was a collection of baggies of drugs, but looking again realized they look more like rolls of pennies in cotton gloves or something, like a hooligan’s fantasy cat o’ nine tails or something. If I wasn’t really struck by anything in particular in my first flip through, this recognition during the second viewing pushed the narrative into straight hooligan territory for me (as if the burning cars and motorcycles and track suits weren’t enough).
I can’t say why the drug dealing didn’t strike me. Scales with piles of powder on, dime and nickel (or whatever they’re called in Ireland) bags piled up in a hand, kids hanging around in that mid-00s tracksuit uniform just seem rather ho hum… I was once young too, y0u know, and these kids are maybe 8 or 10 years younger than me. So if on my first viewing it was all ho hum, more or less, I then realized the abject violence of it all and it sorta feels more icky than the stories and interviews I’ve skimmed in RBW, which are more recognizably human to me than burning cars and beatings with gloves-full of rolled coins.
That said, the kids in Joyrider are really pretty close to the kids I grew up with than the street kids in Raised by Wolves or Streetwise. Like my cohort, I expect the Joyrider kids all got to go home to mommy at night, eat a hot meal, sleep in their own beds, and wake up to freshly laundered tracksuits. Sure, like them, we were left to our own devices more often than not. Sure, we ran away, stayed out all night, maybe did some panhandling or shoplifting or a bit of dealing, even, but in the end it was all tourism for us, more or less. The Joyrider kids, as hard as they probably have it, all look like they come from somewhere else; it doesn’t look like anyone really actually lived in the Block at the time McDonnell made the photographs: windows are broken, walls are all graffitied, there’s heavy dust everywhere and rubble in the streets, etc. I mean, I’ve read some about Ballymun and know that it was ill conceived and rather a 5#!7 hole, but when people actually lived there, I sincerely doubt the streets were strewn with rubble and burned cars to the extent they appear to be in Joyrider. (That said, my darling wife, who lived 20 years in the UK informs me that boosting cars, joyriding, then burning them in the city centre (or council estate adjacent to the one you live in) is incredibly common and more or less a pastime for little soccer-hooligans-in-training.
Anyway. McDonnell shot the work on Tri-X, and so there’s a nice, gritty, sorta timeless feel to the images, even when they depict burning cars and broken windows… and little hooligans. The book is printed well, or as well as I can tell—I’m no expert—and it’s good that the work, now 15 years old, has now appeared in book form. Joyrider is good and I’m blessed to afford the Charcoal subscription, as I probably wouldn’t have bought it on my own or even heard about it. Comparing it again to Streetwise (which I haven’t seen) and Raised by Wolves (which I haven’t spent enough time with), I think Joyrider is after different things. Where those Mark and Goldberg maybe wanted to humanize street kids, Joyrider seems to be celebratory, at best, and depends more on the viewer for empathy and understanding. This reader is thankful to be far away (in time and space) from the Block and the kids that ran around it in its last days.
I like my car…
Overall, Joyrider rates a solid-enough 3.6 stars.
Ross McDonnell’s website is interesting, and from the homepage (at time of writing) you can click to the right to go through some of the images, a bit of text, and a couple of videos from the Joyrider project. It’s a great presentation and worth a visit even if you’re not too interested in the work. You can order a copy of the book direct from McDonnell, from Charcoal, and from other booksellers. If you’re acquainted with the Trainspotting generation, these kids are the younger, Irish version… That’s a bad analogy, but it’s close. Combine the hooliganism, burning cars, burning-out tires, tracksuits, piles of powdered drugs, and etc. with Tri-X, and, well, it works.
Charcoal Book Club insert for Ross McDonnell’s Joyrider. Charcoal, West Virginia. 2021. unpaginated.