Irish photographer Seamus Murphy brought music star PJ Harvey to Afghanistan to film part of their documentary, writes Esther McCarthy.
Not many rock stars would hop on a flight to Afghanistan, but then not many rock stars are like PJ Harvey.
Seekingfirst-hand experience of the countries and people she would be writing about for her latest album, Harvey got in touch with acclaimed Irish conflict photographer Seamus Murphy.
His new documentary, A Dog Called Money, shows how travel to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC inspired the writing process for Harvey’s album, The Hope Six Demolition Project.
The star also recorded the album as an art installation in London’s Somerset House. She had already travelled to Kosovo with the photographer when he invited her to Afghanistan.
“I realised, actually it’s a quiet time in Afghanistan right now,” says Murphy.
“There’s always a chance of suicide bombings or something, but generally speaking, it’s pretty quiet. I had a very good set up in the place I was staying, I’d a really reliable driver. I just rang her and I said: ‘Do you want to go to Afghanistan,because actually this is a good time’.
She said: ‘I don’t know, let me think about it’. She came back a couple of days later and said yes. I think lots of people around her were saying: ‘Are you mad? What the hell are you doing?’ But she did.”
While on the trip, the two were held and asked to account for themselves in a local police station — a process that made them nervous.
“We got sort of semi-arrested in a village in Afghanistan,” says Murphy. “That was something that does happen, and you’ve got to prove who you are and you’re not someone suspicious. That would have been scary, being brought into a police station.
“I think a lot of it was shocking because this was the first time that she’d ever travelled without someone like maybe a manager. This was really make it up as you go along, and she really loved it.”
Polly Jean Harvey and Seamus Murphy came to know each other when she attended an exhibition of his photographic work in London. She was researching an album, and became fascinated by his images.
Murphy had been going to Afghanistan since 1994 and had accumulated a major body of work, mostly black and white pictures.
“She was actually researching Let England Shake at the time, looking at war and representations of war — the First World War a lot, but also other wars. She’d been even reading blogs by American soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two ended up collaborating on the short films that accompanied the tracks on the album and were keen to work together again.
“I don’t look at music videos, I didn’t really have a great reference to those. So I think whatever I did, it hadn’t been done in that way before,” observes Murphy. “We felt that we could work together.
"We thought maybe in real time we could be looking at the same thing at the same time. We had no idea if this would work. But we thought the way to do that would be to be to travel together.
“In many ways I would’ve thought I was the most unlikely person to team up with PJ Harvey. We do approach things in a very similar way, even though obviously what we produce is very different — just letting the situations you get into take you somewhere and letting that inform you, which is a tricky thing to do.
"But I I’ve always worked that way. I’m so used to being in that terribly anxious state all the time!”
Though she’s well known in this part of the world, Harvey was not recognised in the places they went — though one Kosovan monk, he says, later twigged she was, in his words: ‘Somewhat famous’. The singer had herself expressed an interest in Kosovo having closely followed the story of the war there in the 1990s.
“The Balkans is a fascinating place because it’s very European and yet you’ve got the beginnings of the east there,” says Murphy.
“Then we were looking for somewhere that was closer to home, but was not England. We thought about DC. A central, Western power. All that politics and the very place where, of course,decisions are made about places like Afghanistan and Kosovo. I was also aware that DC is very poor in parts, and I thought that would be an interesting thing to respond to, for her to write about and for me to film.”
Originally from Dublin, Murphy is a prolific photographer. He’s won seven World Press Photo awards for his work in Afghanistan, Gaza, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Peru and Ireland. He’s been nominated for an Emmy and as well as having his photography extensively published, has made films for the New Yorker and Channel 4.
Murphy originally applied for a journalism course in the College of Commerce in Rathmines, but was unsuccessful.
A lecturer suggested he try an interview for a new communications course next door, which included journalism, radio and photography. On his first photography class, he was hooked.
“I loved it — I bought a camera and started fiddling with that. I moved to America for a few years and started printing my own work. Down the road from where I was living, there was a darkroom and I used to use it. There was a huge connection between actually going out and taking the picture and then seeing the image, that’s what got me into it.”
In the decades since, he has worked in some of the world’s most volatile zones. Has he learned anything universal from witnessing conflict?
“Most people are actually good people — and even in really bad places, you’ll find the most extraordinary acts of kindness, even though the context may be awful. Most people are trying, but it’s just that there’s always a few that cause trouble and manipulate.”
Murphy is already working on a second documentary feature, a portrait of the poet and former children’s TV presenter, Pat Ingoldsby.
They met when he contacted Ingoldsby for a short film he was making about Dublin for the New Yorker.
“I used some of his poems in the film. I thought there’s got to be a bigger film about this guy and his relationship to Dublin. The way I like to work is very observational.
"I just thought it was a good combination.”
From PJ Harvey to Pat’s Hat, Murphy is already hitting quite a range of subjects.
A Dog Called Money is released in cinemas on November 22nd.