Guest Blog 3. Moira Sweeney, Dublin Docks: Visualising Changing Identities, Communities and Labour Practices

Extracts from ‘Dublin Docks: Visualising Changing Identities, Communities and Labour Practices’

© Moira Sweeney 2015

My arrival onto the South Coal Quay on Dublins’ docks was prompted by the convergence in late 2008 of the distinct tributaries of an exploratory documentary imagination, an inquisitive geographical imagination and access through the man who was to become my key gatekeeper – stevedore John Nolan. At this juncture in practice, an ongoing intrigue with the port space coincided with a desire to challenge and redefine my practice as a broadcast documentary filmmaker. Over the subsequent years I befriended dockworkers, boatmen and port managers, all the while observing, photographing, filming and textually reflecting on these encounters and the relationships formed. This research process was characterised by experimentation and an attempt to push back the boundaries of practice by revitalising it with some of the tenets of visual ethnography.

From the Installation 'Rhythms of a Port'
Fig. 1 Dublin Port from the East Toll Bridge

A desire to adopt a more immersed sensorial audio-visual ethnographic approach on the docks replaced the previous more fleeting photographic path. I drew inspiration from practitioners and scholars within the fields of anthropology and ethnography in particular Grimshaw, Rouch, the MacDougalls and Stoller. Grimshaw’s critical appraisal of observational cinema offers a re-evaluation of its role of as a genre with which to fashion original patterns of ethnographic experience (2007). This approach is one defined by an analytical turn from the semiotic to a more phenomenologically shaped viewpoint, one where the body and the senses are embedded into the ethnographic process (ibid.). Grimshaw’s re-evaluation reflected my own desire to return to a more embodied form of filmmaking[1]. Divested of a full crew and travelling light (compared to the normal television film crew experience) facilitated an embodied engagement with the participants in the expanding field-site.

Fig. 2 Ronnie, Willie and Dick on the South Coal Quay
Fig. 2 Ronnie, Willie and Dick on the South Coal Quay

An intersubjective space existed between myself and the participants, a silent temporal space that was akin to being in what Rouch identified as a ‘ciné-transe’[2]. Filmmakers are privy to moments that they wish to capture and then repeat in the form of a film for others to experience. McDougall understands this longing when he observes that: ‘It seems an unattainable dream, and yet with a camera it is almost possible’ (2006: 27). McDougall describes as ‘a sensation of power and expectancy, as a willing of others to be precisely what they are, and do precisely what they’re doing, as they appear in the viewfinder’ (ibid.: 28). Echoing Hoffman and Rouch, he suggests that this offers a form of ‘spiritual synchrony’ (ibid.).

Fig. 3 Seafarer Cleaning the Hold on the Pacific Future
Fig. 3 Seafarer Cleaning the Hold on the Pacific Future

Over the course of filming I attempted to unearth some of the hidden geographic spaces, sounds and stories of the docks through the process of filming the labour on land and at sea. A slow familiarisation took place through the lens of a camera in this audiovisual and geographic mapping of the port. In becoming acutely aware of the ‘filming-body’ throughout the ethnographic process, I accumulated over this time ‘a series of perceptual clues’ (MacDougall, 2005: 26-27) which allowed me to construct filmic spaces analogous to that experienced in the everyday working life of the stevedores.

From the Photographic Series 'Rhythms of a Port' on Dublins' Docks
Fig. 4 Cleaning the Hold of the Minerval

These spaces took the form of two filmic installations[3]: Stevedoring Stories (Sweeney 2012) and Rhythms of a Port (Sweeney 2014). In the latter, traces of the warehouse’s former days as a dock cargo store lingered: the smell of oil, the old wooden containers, and the goods’ dockets. The elements and the proximity to the docks amplified the immersive experience: the sound of the river Liffey merged with the recorded sounds of the ports’ forklift warnings; gusts of wind wafted through the canvas screens generating a flapping movement like the sails of a boat; and local seagulls provided their own soundtrack to match the rugged harmonies of the recorded creaking wood and metal, squeaking ropes and pulleys.

The expanded version of this essay will appear in ‘Mind the Gap: doctoral research in the creative arts via practice’, Dublin: Distiller’s Press, editors Desmond Bell and Alan Grossman

[1] Grimshaw (2007:21), Rouch and the MacDougalls share a ‘commitment to embodied technology’ which includes the use of minimal handheld equipment. I had adopted such an approach throughout my early years as an experimental filmmaker.

[2] Rouch used this term in an interview in French with Fulchignoni in 1981. Translated extracts can be found in MacDougall (2006).

[3] The installations were curated for key Dublin city cultural events in former cargo warehouses along the docks. Stevedoring Stories was curated for Tall Ships 2012, PhotoIreland 2012 and Dublin Port Riverfest 2013. Rhythms of a Port was curated for PhotoIreland 2014 and Dublin Port River Fest 2014.


Grimshaw, A. Ravetz, A. (2005) Visualizing Anthropology, Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd.

MacDougall D. (2006) The Corporeal Image: Film Ethnography and the Senses, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Stoller, P. (1997) Sensuous Scholarship (Contemporary Ethnography), University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stoller, P. (2008) The Power of the Between: An Anthropological Journey, University of Chicago Press: Chicago


Stevedoring Stories (2012) Directed by Moira Sweeney (Film Installation). Ireland: Spirit Level Productions.

Rhythms of a Port (2014) Directed by Moira Sweeney (Film Installation). Ireland: Spirit Level Productions.