What would photos of the Great Famine have been like?


CULTURE SHOCK:THERE ARE no photographs of the Great Famine. This is not because there were no photographers in Ireland at the time. The big houses held some pioneers of the art. Outdoor photography was certainly difficult, but it was not impossible. What was lacking was the sense of what could and should be recorded.

As a result the Famine does not quite seem to belong to our world. The images that have come down to us – and that linger in public monuments like Edward Delaney’s sculpture on St Stephen’s Green or Rowan Gillespie’s on the Dublin quays – are the stark but stylised drawings from the London Illustrated News.

One of the many shocks delivered by the startling exhibition of photographs from the collection of Sean Sexton at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin is the way it challenges a lazy perception of this problem. It had never occurred to me to ask the obvious question: what would photographs of the Famine have been like? The Sexton exhibition makes you think about this because it has some superb (and rarely seen) images of the Irish rural poor in the post-Famine years. You see big-house photographers like Augusta Crofton pointing their cameras at the labourers on their own estates in the 1850s. You get to wondering what they would have produced had they done the same thing a decade earlier.

And then, later on, in an entirely different sequence of pictures, you are confronted with an answer to this question. It is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen: a picture of famine victims in Madras in 1876, taken by the English soldier and surveyor Willoughby Wallace Hooper. The shock of the image lies not so much in the skeletal human forms, in the gaunt faces and protruding eyes, in the outsized heads of the tiny, wasted children. We have become accustomed to seeing, in photographs and on film, bodies ravaged by starvation. What shocks, rather, is the arrangement of this barely living family by the photographer. They have been brought to his studio. He has posed them on and around a bench, eight human beings, half-naked and three-quarters dead, arranged in the only way the photographer knows how: as a conventional family group whose posture bears the traces of an 18th-century portrait of minor landowners in Shropshire.

The form is so completely inadequate to the content that the resulting image screams obscenities. It is so utterly wrong that it is also, emotionally, entirely right: it is as vile and obscene as a picture of a famine ought to be. It also, however accidentally, says far more about why these people are starving – about the gulf between the power of the photographer and the powerlessness of the dying family – than any other image of hunger I’ve seen.

This kind of shock is what makes this exhibition so extraordinary. Usually a photographic show has some sort of narrative: the development of a particular photographer or of a particular theme. The pictures here have no unity of form or purpose.

They range from Charles Jones’s luminous early studies of fruits and vegetables to dead German soldiers in the second World War. They are together here simply because they have been collected by Sexton. And Sexton is not primarily an academic or a technician or a historian. The only criterion for his collecting seems to be his own intuitive sense of what makes an image potent.

The result is that the pictures on the walls have an extraordinary nakedness. They do not tell a story: they are the story.

There are at least four images of Ireland that knocked me back me on my heels. One is simple and not much of a picture in itself: a small photo of a dilapidated cottage with chipped whitewash and missing slates. It looks a typical image of mid-19th-century Irish misery. But written neatly on the wall is “Haircutting and Shaving Saloon”. That single word “saloon” shatters so many illusions about 19th-century “peasant” culture.

The other images are more obviously dramatic. There is a stunning portrait of an “unknown labourer” from 1858, a young man who must have been a child of the Famine. What is remarkable in the picture is that you can see exactly why the Victorian English were so scared of such people. With his big head of unruly dark curls, his face blackened with dirt and sun, his shirt scandalously open to the waist, his unflinching gaze and insolent pose (he is nonchalantly smoking his pipe), he is the Social Darwinist nightmare: the not-so-noble savage.

No less startling is a picture by Francis Grey that is captioned in his own neat hand: “Hut at present (1887) occupied by Evicted family (10 in all) at Glenbeigh.” It is dazzling because the evicted family escape the cliches of wretchedness that ought to go with their appalling situation of living in a crude lean-to. They are handsome, proud-looking, reasonably well dressed. At the centre of the picture is a little girl sitting on a flagstone. On her head is a respectable broad-brimmed hat. It is far too big for her. It must be her mother’s, and it is overwhelmingly poignant.

The other haunting exhibit is actually a double image. Attributed to “E Leslie”, it comprises two small pictures of the body of Seamus Quirke. The context is not at all clear. In Sexton’s book The Irishhe is described as allegedly the last victim of the Civil War, killed in 1923. At the gallery the caption has him “shot and killed by the Black and Tans, Galway, September 1920”. Either way, the pictures capture a process that is almost never recorded: the transformation of a poor, tragic corpse into a sanctified political image. In the first picture there is blood on his face and his clothes are torn. His body lies awkwardly in a rough coffin that is standing upright against a stone wall. In the second picture he is lying in state, in a silk-lined coffin, draped with the tricolour, surrounded by flowers and candles.

We know that this is how dirty deeds are processed into heroic stories. We seldom get to see it happening.