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My 42-year career as a newspaper photographer: Highs, lows and my favourite pictures

Irish Times Photo Editor Brenda Fitzsimons retires after more than four decades as a press photographer

Inhabitants of Korpoila Island in Sierra Leone, in February 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

It’s been a lucky and above all interesting career. My work with The Irish Times has taken me across the globe, covering conflicts and their aftermath, in countries that include Afghanistan, Haiti, Libya, South Sudan and Myanmar.

But it’s the home stories that can be more challenging than the international ones: constantly trying to magic the extraordinary from the ordinary. Strangers inviting you into their homes, divulging harrowing stories and trusting you to capture the truth of their emotions.

It’s hard for me to believe my 24 years with The Irish Times have come to an end. In all, I have worked for 42 years as a press photographer. I started my career in my home town with the Galway Advertiser under the generous guidance of my first editor, Ronnie O’Gorman, then it was to Dublin and a staff job with the Irish Press until its closure in 1995. I freelanced for the Star and The Irish Times for several years before getting a staff job here in March 2000.

A press photographer is rarely in the office, there are multiple assignments every day; from the scrum of a press call in Leinster House or the stillness of a portrait of a well-known artist, to photographing a person who is bravely telling their story so that society might change and the shenanigans of a race day.

The Irish Hot Air Ballooning Championships taking place over Trim during early morning sunrise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Moving to become Irish Times picture editor, I was able to bring the best of press photography to our pages daily. It’s hectic most days and has its stresses, but there are always moments to be enjoyed.

When I began, being out on the road for an assignment meant putting rolls of film on a train, collected by a courier, and brought to the darkroom for printing. Now I know our photographs have filed when I hear a ping from my laptop. And in this era of rapid technological change, significant challenges have emerged. When I started, a photo was often more trusted than words. AI has changed that. And a new generation of photo editors and media outlets must develop verification tools that stay one step ahead of dangerous visual disinformation.

I don’t miss the toxic chemical stench of the old darkroom days, but I miss the buzz and camaraderie in those tight spaces – witnessing breaking news pictures slowly appearing in the developer and hearing the images being vigorously discussed by seasoned, award-winning photographers; discussions that sometimes involved other important words of the craft – unprintable expletives.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams with his face in a cast for a Dublin Wax Museum model in 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

I am so glad to have experienced the smell of print-ink snaking its way through the old Irish Times building on Fleet Street, as the vibration of the printing press kicked in, and the presses started rolling, while the printers sang a cappella.

I will not forget any of these last wonderful 42 years working as a press photographer.

Today, I say goodbye to the newsroom but not its people.

President Mary McAleese with her husband Martin leaving the Customs House after her uncontested re-election. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Kadiatu Tuayemie (25) lies in labour under the watchful eye of community health worker Adana Kajue and Theresa Mansaray, midwife in training, at the Kahekay MCH Peripheral Health Unit in Junctonil, Bonthe, Sierra Leone, February 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Author William Trevor in the Shelbourne Hotel. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Poet Paul Durkan in Merrion Square in October 2009. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Schoolchildren from Killaghtee National School, Donegal, walk to the church to rehearse for the school's nativity play, in December 2001. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea TD during the 82nd Cadet Class Commissioning Ceremony at the Cadet School Military College Curragh, Co. Kildare. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Passengers in the bucket of a digger hitch a ride across the Old Bridge where the banks of the Suir burst in Clonmel. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Yeyang Yang (31) with his daughter Syya (6) at their home in Banxang village, Phonsavan, Laos, in April 2017. He was burning rubbish when the heat of the fire ignited an unexploded ordnance in the ground. Yeyang spent eight months in hospital and still had to undergo further surgery. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
George Smith celebrating his 100th birthday in John Kavanaghs in Glasnevin, commonly known as The Gravediggers, with his family and friends in January 2015. George has been going to this pub every week for the past 60 years. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Artist Camille Souter in a room that she refers to as 'The Folly' across from her studio in Achill Island, in March 2001. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Resident of Shelbourne Road Anne Collins in the Berkeley Court Hotel looking at the proposed plans for the 37-storey tower planned for the Jurys Berkeley court site. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Rt Revd Alan Harper, Bishop of Connor, with his wife Helen at the announcement of his election as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, in St Patrick's Cathedral Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons