A streak of neon-bright green files among the domestic clutter of a small British living room. The fancy bird chooses its perch between the sofa, the flat screen TV, the mantlepiece and the closed window. The bird is indigenous to the forests of Venezuela, Colombia and Guyana, but it is here, in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, playing a starring role in Rachel Glass’ series The Domestic Aviary.
“Confinement or sanctuary?” Glass asks, as the birds fly through “the looser confines” of the contemporary domestic home, in all its tastes. “How much freedom do we actually have, and how much we can invest in it?” In the corner sits the bird’s cage. She has caught them, wings stretched mid-flight, or appraising their horizons, preparing to fly in a larger cage.
“We as people can fly as far as we want,” the 21-year-old Glass says. “But are we confined or constrained by our own lives and commitments?”
In her eyes, these birds are metaphors: “Of our own conscious understanding of freedom, in all its limits and possibilities.”
Glass grew up in the countryside around Belfast, before completing a degree in photography at the city’s School of Art. On top of this series, Glass has photographed young women “who have never been in love,” singing love songs to her camera, while a spontaneous dancing series entitled The Art of Letting Go is described as “a symbolic movement in the effort to remove ideas that can hold us back.” And then there’s Safe Places, in which adults are photographed hiding in their places of safety from childhood memories – the footwell of a desk, under a duvet, in the corner of a room behind a curtain.
Her photography, Glass says, “deals with ideas I find difficult to comprehend.” She confesses to an anxious attitude that must be harnessed: “As a photographer, my over-thinking can become an asset.”
Yet there is a discernible theme here. “These are photographs by a young woman working through her own position and response to growing up in Northern Ireland,” says the renowned photographer Ken Grant, a lecturer at the School of Art. “Cathartic qualities seem to inhabit her work,” he says, “that relate something of the psychological challenges young people face – and in Northern Ireland these are as acute as anywhere.”
Trying to understand the dislocation and uncertainty of realising you might be an adult, whether or not you want to be, is a well-tread subject in photography. Glass admits to lacking confidence in her ability, but she is capable of a depth of understanding beyond her years, Grant says. “Young photographers can often fail to make work that is mature enough to move beyond the immediate sensation to survive,” he says. “But Rachel’s photography possess a sense of the paradox of being confined by the challenges of contemporary life.”
Glass had to invite herself into stranger’s homes for the purpose of this series. “I had to push my own boundaries and harness a freedom I had been denying myself because of fear,” she says. The effort was worth it, for The Domestic Aviary was been exhibited at The Royal Ulster Academy, and won the Royal Dublin Society Lens Based Award.
“She has an ability to draw from conditions that are ubiquitous, but layered with an emotional depth,” Grant says. “It means pictures linger long after we’ve seen them. I’m keen to see how she will move forward.”
See more of Rachel’s work here.