Shot through the heart: mother and daughter take turns behind the camera

Having pictures of herself and her daughter, Laoisha, go viral has been an intense experience for award-winning photographer Emer Gillespie

Mon, Jan 27, 2014, 13:54

When Irish artist Emer Gillespie’s latest photography project, Picture You, Picture Me, went viral in the US, even appearing on Good Morning America and today.com, she was both astonished and terrified. Astonished that pictures so personal of herself and her daughter Laoisha were now being consumed by the vast maw of the media, and terrified her daughter would now be defined by Down Syndrome and her own work would be interpreted in a sickly saccharine way.

“It’s surreal. Its like being inside the machine that is the media. I’m getting emails from around the world, but the ones I appreciate the most are from other parents of children with Down Syndrome,” says Gillespie.

The 33-year-old was born in Cork and grew up in Naas. Today she teaches photography full-time at colleges in Brighton and Hove.

Gillespie was a 21-year-old art student at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology when Laoisha was born in an unplanned pregnancy. Gillespie, with Laoisha’s father, discovered that Laoisha had Down Syndrome five minutes after the birth, but they were determined to be positive. “Because we were so young and adaptable and vibrant, we took on the challenge in a positive let’s-do-it way. We were more concerned with helping everyone else deal with it.”

With youth and energy on their side and no experience, the young couple began searching for all the information they could find, although the most important thing for them was to enjoy Laoisha as she was, rather than define her by the one part of her that is a condition. When Laoisha was one year old, the couple split up but they remained a dedicated parenting team, so much so that when Gillespie moved to Britain for graduate work at Central St Martins and subsequently the teaching job, Laoisha’s father followed.

Two Homes, a previous photographic project, was a visual account of the unconventional family arrangement the two young parents created.

“With Down Syndrome, there are a lot of extra things going with it, so we put our differences aside to work positively together,” says Gillespie. “I was interested in showing that positive vibe and showing a way of living. The pictures are very honest and real because I don’t set up anything except for choosing where to take the photos.”

Gillespie’s interest in photographing the domestic in an unstaged, candid style began when as a graduate student at St Martins, she found herself for the first time housebound with Laoisha for long periods. The support network of friends and the help from the Brothers of Charity she had enjoyed in Galway were now gone. So making the most of her situation, Gillespie decided to make “feeling stuck” in domestic life the subject of one of her first photographic series, Domestication, which focused on very small details in the home.

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