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Capturing the Republic: Why an acclaimed photographer came back to his roots to mark 2016

Seamus Murphy left Ireland in his 20s but came back to chronicle modern day Ireland for the centenary year.

HE’S TRAVELLED THE world documenting different cultures and places, but award-winning photographer Seamus Murphy came back to his Irish roots for his most recent project.

The Republic is a photographic book filled with images that capture modern Ireland for the 1916 centenary year.

The seven time World Press Photo award-winner spoke to TheJournal.ie about his beginnings in photography, his accomplished career to date and his latest book, which he’ll be discussing at an event in Dublin later today.

Where it all began

Although growing up in Dublin the self-taught photographer’s love for the craft first developed when he moved to America in his 20s. He effectively learned ‘on the job’ -travelling the world, and developing his own style.

It’s one way of doing it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it, I think you end up with a fairly individual style.

But there are benefits that come along with being self-taught, he says:

I think not knowing everything that’s gone before you and making mistakes yourself and then doing things and finding out someone else did that thing, but at least I wasn’t copying somebody.

The Republic

Weekend Review March 2016. Photograph from the book The Republic, by the Irish photographer Seamus Murphy, published by Allen Lane. Single use. From Celia Long (CLong@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk). Seamus Murphy's explanation of photo: Outside the Garda Station on Pearse Street, this woman walked past me with another lady. It was like one of those stories you hear about models being discovered on the street. I just had to photograph her. So I went back and blurted out about the book, and she posed for me. She was quite sad. I think she had just been crying. She had an extraordinary face. A crying woman Murphy photographed on Pearse Street in Dublin for The Republic. Source: The Republic/Seamus Murphy

Murphy is speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival about his latest project today.

“I’ve been wanting to do something in Ireland for a while,” he says of the much-acclaimed book.

“My thing is to go places and take photographs and describe what’s going on and capture it and live there but it was always someone else’s place.

I had travelled to Ireland to do the odd story but it was never something personal.

He said the idea for the Republic came to him on a hike through Syria. He had eight hours at night to hike and “had a lot of time to think about things”.

Murphy thought back on his career and the photographs he took of veterans who fought against the British in the War of Independence. He remembered “how they spoke about rebellions and they talked about ambushes, they talked about trying to get rid of the Brits and regime change”.

Weekend Review March 2016. Photograph from the book The Republic, by the Irish photographer Seamus Murphy, published by Allen Lane. Single use. From Celia Long (CLong@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk). Seamus Murphy's explanation of photo: John Snee was in the East Mayo IRA Brigade. I met him in 1997, and this picture was taken at Kilmainham Gaol. He fought in the Civil War on the Republican side. He ended up in New York running seven bars, and the story goes that he fought the mafia in New York. I learned living history, talking to these guys and hearing their stories about what they believed in, and what they did. I have covered a lot of wars and conflicts during my career. When I was in Syria in 2012, I would often think of the IRA veterans, because it was a very similar sort of warfare they were fighting, using guerrilla tactics and ambushes up against a huge regime. It was an interesting experience to have that connection with your own history in places that are very foreign. No matter what your politics are, their beliefs and their version of freedom is what impressed me. John Snee, who fought against the British in the War of Independence, was photographed by Murphy in Kilmainham Gaol in 1997. Source: The Republic/Seamus Murphy

And here I was walking eight miles to meet rebels in Syria, and it all sort of came together in a way. Some of the old guys [Irish veterans] talked about these night things where they’d have meetings and hide guns and it all sort of made sense.

Marriage equality

Murphy gave himself 18 months to photograph Ireland. One of the biggest events to happen during that time was the same sex marriage referendum.

Says Murphy:

I wanted to mark it in some way but not do the obvious news picture.

He was at Dublin Castle on the day of the results taking photographs of the celebrations:

“I spent the whole day photographing what was going on and it was all a bit ‘newsy’ I found. I wanted to have something a bit more lasting, a bit less obvious.”

Unhappy with what he regarded as generic-looking news shots he captured on the day, he decided to include instead a photo from gay club Pantibar he had taken months before (below).

_89325595_015-015-014-img_5488 Pantibar in Dublin. Source: The Republic/Seamus Murphy

Worldwide traveller

Now a seasoned war photographer, Murphy spoke about his first journey to a warzone in 1994 – when he travelled to Afghanistan.

“I think the worst time was the very first time and it was the civil war, there wasn’t Americans or NATO troops, it was just Afghan Mujahideen fighting each other.”

At any point you could be in a shell attack.
What was extraordinary was people just got on with their lives… They had been used to it for a number of years.

SeamusMurphyDarknessVisible7 A boy in Afghanistan watches freshly caught fish on a roadside Source: Seamus Murphy/Darkness Inside

Murphy has been to Afghanistan nearly twenty times since then. He’s also worked in Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

After returning home, he says, he always needs a ”a decompression period”.

It’s not a huge culture shock, but you really appreciate what you have when you come home. Just easy things like food and drink.
The adjustment is more like when you go – when you leave your comfort zone, you very quickly have to adjust.

Now that The Republic is completed, Murphy is already planning his next trip to Afghanistan.

A poet with a camera

Respected Welsh photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths once described Murphy as “a poet with a camera”.

And asked to describe how he approaches his work, Murphy says:

It’s trying to get it down to something that really has an impact and that really delivers thought or gives someone a feeling or a mood and hopefully moves a person in someway and that’s what I think poetry does.

As for all those awards:

They’re really nice to get because it just means that someone’s recognised you and you’ve done some good work.
Winning a prize and not winning a prize is often a slim difference. It’s just great to win something, anything really, because there’s so many great photographers out there.

Read: This award-winning photographer has seen it all – and the stress even gave him alopecia >

 Read: A Dublin photographer takes a photo of his kids every day to celebrate ‘little moments’ >

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