Capturing Ireland’s ‘lawless, wild irreverence’ on camera

Irish photographer Seamus Murphy has an extraordinary eye for capturing humanity

Seamus Murphy texts me from the metro in Washington DC. There are huge crowds, he says, pink everywhere. The London-based Irish photographer has been in the States to film both Donald Trump's inauguration and the Women's March. He'll find a quiet alleyway, he suggests, we can talk then.

I suspect this is pretty normal for Murphy, who has won seven World Press awards, has featured in most major news publications, and who, in addition to collaborating on films with PJ Harvey, has worked in troubled spots from Lebanon to Sierra Leone. When there's chaos unfolding around you, you find the still spot and make it work.

Ten minutes later, we’re talking and, beyond his warm engaging voice, I can hear klaxons, shouts, sounds of excitement. The inauguration, he says, was “very anticlimactic, nothing like any other inauguration, although the people who voted for him are presumably happy. This is different,” he adds, of the Women’s March, which is just kicking off. “It’s jubilant, but angry too.”

Murphy is there to take footage for a feature-length documentary he is making with Harvey, following his series of 12 short films for her Let England Shake album. The singer had contacted him after seeing his Darkness Visible exhibition on Afghanistan. Their collaboration, says Murphy, "takes a funny form, because we're both very independent and we don't take direction that well, but then we don't try and direct each other, so it's an easy symbiosis."


He left Ireland in the 1980s, finding the north Dublin he knew growing up interested him less than what was happening beyond our shores. As we talk, the sounds beyond recede (I suspect he's stepped further into the alleyway for greater quiet) and I get the strong impression of a serious but gentle intelligence and a resilient sense of humour. He is caught between the rigours of journalism: truth, absolute accuracy, a responsibility to what you see; and the more poetic nature of his project with Harvey. "For Polly it was her first time," he says of the journalistic process. "We went to real places, met and spoke to real people, but I suppose we both tend towards a poetic and less obvious approach in our work."

He describes how they want to "bring a mystery to it, without compromising on the veracity of the situations and stories we found. Poets and writers have more of an opportunity to invent things," he says, perhaps wistfully. The film, which goes from Kosovo to Kabul to Washington DC, with verse and lyrics by Harvey, has become consuming. "When's it coming out? God knows. I'd like it to be by the end of the year."

Does he feel like the world is falling apart? "It certainly feels that way," he says, after a pause to consider, "but then imagine what it was like in the second World War, in North Korea and Afghanistan. We think of the world falling apart when our bit of it takes a wobble – but the world turns. I'm not saying it'll all be bright in the end, I have terrible misgivings about this president. I think good sense prevails, but also I think it's going to be a tough struggle with this guy."

Alongside his other work, Murphy also last year published his first major focus on Ireland: Republic. It's a wonderful book and 64 of the images from it are now on exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin. It all started with his now-famous image from 2011, of a man riding a horse backwards down a bank during a country hunt. Murphy was following the action with his sister. Horses were pulled up at a particularly high bank. One rider said: "Sure I could do that backwards." A bet ensued, then this photograph: "It killed me," says Murphy, realising the image caught some of what he takes to be quintessentially Irish: a wild irreverence, flirting with death, because how else would you come to terms with it otherwise? "A lawless, breaking-the-rules, feck-it-all attitude," as he has described it elsewhere. "I knew I would have to do something with it – like a poisoned chalice."

Changing cameras to "freshen the eye", he embarked on a tour of Ireland. Standing in Ballaghaderreen with a Rolleiflex drew the attention of local photographer Mick McCormack "and soon I was in his house, photographing his father". It was that sort of a trip. Other images include race-goers,crop-pickers looking like an advancing army, an incredible photograph of an elderly man laughing at the barber's – a poster of Al Pacino glowering sexily behind – and a beautiful touching shot of two children holding hands swimming in peaty water. "If you read a novel," says Murphy, "you learn about a character from what he or she does and you get to sympathise with them, you don't have to spell it out." It's the perfect summation of an approach that has earned him global fame.

In the evening, Murphy texts again. It was an amazing march, a huge turnout, he says. I picture him with his wild curly salt and pepper hair, in the midst of the crowds, hundreds of thousands strong, capturing the people, the diverse moments and expressive faces that collectively make humanity what it is.

Home is Another Place is at the Little Museum of Dublin until February 26th