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


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, 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.

Then, when Laoisha was six years old, the little girl began to express an interest in taking photographs of her mother, turning the tables on the mother-daughter relationship. Gillespie had been keeping a notebook of her work, and looking back on it realised her work was dominated by these double mother/daughter photographs, which had her own perspective and Laoisha’s side by side. And so, in 2008, Picture You, Picture Me began.

It’s unusual for a photographer, by definition an observer, to relinquish control of the camera to her subject. Going even further, Gillespie began to let Laoisha choose the settings and the activities portrayed. Like any little girl, Laoisha’s ideal situations were jumping on the bed, braiding hair, playing with make-up, blowing bubbles and flying kites. Laoisha has taken full control over her own photographs, expressing her own unique visual perspective.

This continuing photo series has been critically acclaimed, including a listing in the Critical Mass Top 50 Portfolios of 2013, and Gillespie plans to continue it as long as Laoisha remains interested. When she sees the pictures on a gallery wall, she does a double-take where she can’t quite believe her most intimate life is being exposed, but

“It’s a real labour of love to get it out there,” she says. “For me, the real and the personal is one of the strongest forms of photography.”

Gillespie’s work has, since 2005, been exhibited in China, all over Ireland, as well as in New York, Portugal, London, France, Belfast and Poland. Her work has been published in numerous photography publications and won her several fellowships, residencies and awards.

Laoisha, for her part, is in mainstream school in Brighton where her reading level is on a par with her classmates. Aged 11, she’s enjoying learning to knit and embroider (Gillespie’s BA from GMIT was in textiles).

This year Gillespie is beginning another project with a similarly powerful emotional theme: women who have unwillingly given babies up for adoption. This is inspired by her own mother who was forced to give up a son to St Patrick’s Guild for adoption before Gillespie was born. Recently, her mother was reunited with this “baby”, now a man living in Australia, who just spent his first Christmas in Ireland – the country where he was born.

For these photographs Gillespie is seeking Irish women who had to give up babies between the 1950s-1970s.

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