Valentina’s photography in focus: From the North to the Republic

Valentina Culley Foster.
Valentina Culley Foster.

A new photography project is currently showcasing Derry and Donegal at the prestigious ‘Picture Berlin’ showcase.

Valentina Culley-Foster’s, ‘From the North to the Republic,’ is a coffee table book of 80 stills, all of which explore the issue of identity and place. The images, which are somehow simultaneously stark, sparse, intimate, beautiful and yet heavily laden with the narrative of place, were captured along the Derry and Donegal border.

Their pedigree is already well established thanks to exhibits in Derry, Dublin, London and now Berlin. Valentina’s work has also been featured in, among other publications, Source Magazine.

“I felt very privileged to have had my work shown in these studios and galleries. All the exposure I can get helps.”

The University of Westminster student, who is also a member of Pilot’s Row Photography Club, is only one of nine exhibitors whose work will be featured at ‘Picture Berlin.’

Her application to participate was one of almost 500 and Valentina was the only Irish or UK based photographer to have her work included.

“Being selected was a big honour,” said Valentina. “I’m very flattered and I see it as a great opportunity to learn from other photographers.

“I’ll also be meeting curators which can only help me for future projects.”

The exhibit also means Valentina will participate in a five week photography studies residency in Berlin.

Speaking about ‘From the North to the Republic,’ Valentina said: “I wanted to show as much of a true representation of Derry as I could, in particular how it is still divided, both in itself and from Donegal.

“I wanted to show how the experience of crossing the border is different today, even compared to 15 years ago. People are aware of this on a subconscious level, there is also a difference from one side to the other.

“There is a metaphorical divide in people’s minds as well as the actual physical one.”

Though born in the USA, Valentina is a frequent visitor to Derry on account of her Derry born father Tony.

‘Journal’ readers will recall Tony’s sponsored runs across Ireland and the USA for youth and cross community charities in the 1980s.

Valentina recalls those early trips to Ireland: “I remember the different atmosphere, not just between Derry and the USA but as we had family living in Fahan also, I remember the distinct difference in the atmospheres between Derry and Donegal. It was obviously much more militarised in Derry.

“I don’t remember actually crossing a border checkpoint, or going through the military checks, but I do remember being frightened at seeing soldiers with guns.

“It was certainly a different environment than the one I was used to in the States.”

The Berlin trip means the project has gone full circle in some respects. As the exhibit had its genesis, when, during the photographer’s first year as an Art and Design student in Westminster, London, she travelled to Berlin. “I wanted to create a project on what life would have been like for Berliners if the Wall had not come down. I seem to have an ongoing interest in divides and how they affect identity. Fast forward a few years and as my family live in Coshowen, I was always getting lost on back roads there. One day I began taking images of the hills of Donegal from the North. The concept of being in one country and photographing another interested me. That is how this book began.

“From there the project moved into the streets of Derry and to depicting flags and kerbstones and even the removal of the word ‘London’ from road signs.”

Strangely for a study of identity, Valentina admits: “There isn’t a single person in the book, I didn’t think it was necessary. I thought it was more neutral that way also.”

Having undertaken such an indepth study on the issue of identity, Valentina is reticent when it comes to discussing her own.

“The project was about putting contextualised information of the place within the frame. For me it was never about getting a better understanding of myself, but moreso of whichever subject was in front of the camera. I put myself in their shoes in order to understand the subject’s viewpoint but most importantly their outlook, literally I asked: ‘What are they viewing on a daily basis?’”

“I began the project properly during the summer holidays and my tutors trusted me to leave me to my own devices; It grew organically from there.

“It took me seven months in total to shoot the project and then it was a constant refining process.

“I suppose I wanted to do something for the community which I’ve loved visiting and living in. I’ve had a strong connection to here ever since I was young but even with that in mind, it is still is a little strange to see ‘my book’ on a table.”

Valentina is hoping to finalise a deal with a publisher over the summer, but currently she is happy to enjoy the attention the project is receiving.

“Designing the book was so much work but after ‘Picture Berlin,’ the layout may change again. I am still refining it, still learning. At the minute I’m delighted to have been invited to join the exhibits, the book will, as has the project, follow on organically.”

With her work constantly being exhibited across Europe and the demands on her time due to the travelling and preparation required, Valentina was unable to attend her own graduation ceremony at University of London, Westminster.

“They’ve been kind enough to invite me to attend another ceremony in November,” she said. “All my celebrations have been put on hold until then I suppose.”