These images prove you need context to appreciate photography

Context is key in photography, especially with regards to the 40 images that make up the PhotoIreland Festival, says Richard Fitzpatrick

Kevin Griffin has a photograph of a cow swimming. It features in this year’s PhotoIreland Festival. The photo, which is taken in Connemara, close to where Griffin lives, is shot at the water’s surface level. The cow is making its way through the water, with half her head above the water, and she’s being half-pulled by a rope.

She glances across at the camera. Ángel Luis González Fernández, the founder of PhotoIreland Festival, says you have to understand the background to the picture to appreciate it.

“If you don’t know the context, you’re going to feel bad for the cow, but if you know the context you will know that this cow is very used to doing these swims. It’s not dangerous for her. She does them regularly. It’s part of her annual grazing. She goes across this lake so she can go to these fields to graze.

“Context can alter the meaning of a photograph. A photograph, especially with kids or nudity, depending on how those images are represented, can have very powerful and disturbing meanings. When we’re talking about politics and journalism, context is even more important because of how an image is presented. Who presents the image? Where was it taken? You have to always remain critical. We cannot consume images aesthetically on their own anymore because we know that we can be manipulated. Advertising is the best example.

“For me, a photograph has no meaning without a context. All these images in PhotoIreland, to enjoy them by themselves is the same as going to an exhibition in Holland to see paintings and not to read anything about the artist, knowing who he or she is, or not knowing any context about the paintings. You’re going to enjoy them in a very plain way. When you establish a relationship, and find out more about them, you can really make the images work.”

There are many images from the PhotoIreland Festival that work well, particularly the ones from a strand called Greetings From Ireland Worldwide. Its contemporary images of Ireland include sunbathers at the Forty Foot in Dún Laoghaire by Shane Lynam, and a spectacular shot by Kenneth O’Halloran of mountain climbers trekking up and down Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo on a fine day.

Many of its photographs are playful, like David Farrell’s image of doughnut-shaped skid marks that remain on a country road, or the ones that look as if they were refashioned from the studio of John Hinde half a century after the Englishman went around the Irish countryside snapping redheaded children bringing home the turf.

“We made them into a collection of postcards also,” says González Fernández. “The project was to poke fun and play around with the idea of the tourist image. We asked artists, ‘what is Ireland for you?’ Kenneth O’Halloran’s image is quite beautiful. From that collection there are others that are more deadpan and irreverent.

“Kids jumping in a canal in Dublin; the water towers of Ireland; old folk in the countryside where nothing is happening, they’re just hanging around. Images that represent Ireland in a more everyday manner so instead of just the picture of St Patrick’s Cathedral with a blue sky there is also one of some tourists hanging around, waiting for the boat to go to Bull Island in raincoats and it’s raining. Mark Duffy took a picture of the cafeteria at Knock Shrine, which has this stalactite ceiling. It looks completely crazy. It becomes like a grotto, but that’s Ireland.”

The 40 images that make up the Greetings from Ireland Worldwide collection were also on display at last month’s Triennial of Photography in Hamburg, Germany.

Closer to home, the PhotoIreland Festival is in its sixth year. It’s the brainchild of González Fernández, who moved to Dublin from Madrid in 1998. When he finished a degree in photography at DIT in 2007, he was disillusioned at photography’s lowly stature in the country.

“I was thinking, why is it so difficult to progress in Ireland in terms of photography when in other countries it is very well received? There was a sense here of photography either understood in a very amateur way as a camera club. On the other side, it was understood in the art gallery or museum level, which is conceptual use in a very particular way. In between there was very little.”


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