Small Lives at the National Photographic Archive

Over the last few years, I’ve spent lots of time going through Board of Education reports, details on school capacities and statistics, literacy levels in Census reports, and the lives of children in the nineteenth century. Maybe because of that, or maybe because I forgot that real people are the basis of all these data, but I had quite an emotional reaction to the Small Lives Exhibition at the National Photographic Archive. The Exhibition showcases photographs of children from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with exposure to children from a range of different backgrounds.

The juxtaposition of the well-heeled with those in abject poverty—the children, their clothing, houses, surroundings—is stark, and you can’t but be emotional looking at the range of really beautifully shot photographs. Anger at the poverty on view is probably misplaced, because there is no-one to be angry at—the “rich” photos are just children too. There are some beautiful prints and drawings from the Brocas family (Henry, William, and James Henry) including a very stark contrast between a sketch of an ‘idealised‘ poor child next to a sketch of an actual one.

It’s hard to pick favourites but three that stood out for me are below.

Arranmore Disaster 1935

Arranmore Disaster 1935 - click on image to go to NLI Flickr website

I think this is a devastating photograph, and I had to hold back a little tear reading about it! While many others in the exhibition showed much more explicitly the kinds of poverty children were living in, this one more than others I think gives a real sense of how children must have had to grow up very fast. The context of the photograph is given on the NLI Flickr site. A sister photograph, Aran Island Girls is a good antidote.

A school room, c. 1900.

This photograph shows a crammed school room packed with boys completing their “lessons”. Two masters are present, probably for the purpose of the photograph. The walls are covered with maps and charts. The photo brings to life the dozens of Applications to the Board of Education I have read for support for teachers, books, maps, and more. I look at the room as a Board’s inspector might look at it (worrying!) and can almost imagine their report; a well proportioned room with space for 44 children, well lit by eight large windows…

Na Fianna Éireann

Na Fianna Éireann, c. 1900. Click on image to go to NLI Flickr website.

I love this photograph! The formal stature and serious expression on some of the boys’ faces contrasts brilliantly with the younger ones at the front busy practising their first aid, seemingly oblivious. There are other Na Fianna photographs, including one at the funeral of Michael Collins, in the exhibition.

I can’t recommend the exhibition enough. You can read more about it at the NLI Blog and see some more of the photos on the Flickr website. It is well worth visiting in person though I think; you really get a sense of immersion in the subjects of the exhibition.