talks to photographers who have used their medium to make sense of the pandemic crisis
So many photographs have shaped the way we view the past as well as the present.
Think of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 post-war portrait of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square.
He said his mission through this photograph was “to find and catch the storytelling moment” and the joyful post-war shot became an iconic image of the 20th century."
Pictures trigger emotional responses like little else and drive-by shooters have been vital to their communities during pandemic restrictions — not least because the people we are used to meeting out and about are now smiling out at us from photos shared on social media.
Award-winning press photographer Valerie O’Sullivan started her “Keeping Killarney Connected” series as soon as the Covid-19 restrictions kicked in.
Striking images include her portrait of Fiona Carroll dropping off his weekly shopping to Denis Tangney.
Fiona became a face for all the Covid-19 Kerry Community Response Forum volunteers including Kerry County Council, the Gardaí and GAA clubs.
“What I most remember from that day is the sheer warmth of the staff in Dunnes Stores who were very particular about finding the precise cheese Denis liked,” said Valerie.
Photographing James Murphy, who lives in splendid rural isolation in Ballinskelligs, south Kerry, also captured this moment in time for Valerie. “James is a sheep farmer on Bolus Head and was very busy with lambing season at the time,” said Valerie.
“He’s a very self-sufficient man and said he’s used to the rural isolation more so than the social isolation. He said he loves to see walkers going by but whatever you do, don’t bring your dog!”
Action taken to support a family living in another remote location was the high point of the lockdown period for Valerie.
“It was week six of lockdown. Everyone was struggling. I volunteer with Killarney Chamber and one night I got a text, sent around asking if everyone could light a candle for Gene Tangney, from the Black Valley who was battling Covid-19. I decided to put it on social media.”
Three-quarters of an hour later, at 9pm, the message had reached 100,000 people. “We all felt so helpless — people could not do anything, or go anywhere, at that stage of the lockdown but the one thing we felt we could do was light a candle. It’s such a sign of life and hope. I felt a very powerful thing happened that night.
“Mayor of Killarney Michael Gleeson was always my go-to for a quote to sum things up and he spoke about showing patience and the old saying: ‘It is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’.” The past weekend saw Valerie turn her lens on images of that hope.
“We begin to hope a little more this week. Businesses are re-emerging. Construction has restarted. The towns retailers and hotels are silently transformed behind the scenes to meet the new Covid-19 guidelines,” she says.
Another photographer who used her medium to make sense of this crisis is Roscrea, Co Tipperary, native Marie Carroll-O’Sullivan of The Little Memory Gallery.
Now living in Killarney, her images of cocooners on doorsteps and in gardens were a huge hit.
“A friend asked me to take a photo of her parents in a nearby estate if ever I was passing as she was living in the next town,” Marie says.
“It was then I decided to use my camera and my social media platform for us all to say ‘hi’ to each other, the elderly, families and children alike. It snowballed from there and I'm still going.” The reaction was “phenomenal”, she says.
“Soon after that, the emails came rolling in, messages like, ‘can you visit my parents, I haven't seen them in so long’,” added Marie. “The absolute joy my garden visit gave to people -not to mind the families reading it abroad- meant I was only too delighted to deliver.” Centenarian Michael J O’Connor was the subject of Marie’s favourite shot.
“I was so excited to visit Mr O’Connor. He’s 106 years young, turning 107 in October.
“Of course, the very first question I was bursting to ask Mr O'Connor was the secret to a long and healthy life. He replied: ‘Enjoy your life and do everything in moderation.’ Wise words. He then followed on to say he enjoys a whiskey in milk each evening.
“He has given me a whole new outlook on life. His mind for dates and details was mind-blowing. I said I would have loved to hug Mr O'Connor goodbye and he replied ‘another time’.”
In spite of social distancing, documenting this time has given Ruth Medjber a chance to get close to her neighbours.
“Photography is always my way in to social situations. I use it to make friends, to start conversations, to adjust to new social surroundings. When I've got my camera in my hand my confidence skyrockets. I've lived in Finglas for nearly two years now but was always too shy to meet the neighbours properly.”
Now the music photographer has captured through-the-window vignettes — a warm series that has become a global sensation during lockdown.
“When Covid19 came I lost my job instantly. Nobody wants to hire a music photographer if there's no music! It's unlikely that music will come back properly until 2021 either. This news devastated me. I wasn't used to doing nothing with my time and began to get a little bit broken-hearted with it all.
"Once I started shooting this that all changed. It's given me a purpose again, a real sense of worth. Each night I'm chatting with new people, they're excited about their shoot and have been out cleaning the window or digging out their hair straighteners.”
Dublin wedding and portrait photographer Stephen O’Sullivan had the idea for drive-by shoots as soon as restrictions were announced.
“I have a passion or compulsion to capture and record moments in time before they vanish,” he says. “Weddings, sunsets, families — the same fundamentals apply. In years or generations to come people -including ourselves- may not believe what things are like right now, we are so far removed from normality, yet it has become ‘normal’. I wanted to create some sort of souvenir to jog the memories.
"I also wanted to do something for my community and be part of some positive community spirit — not exactly ‘frontline’ but it is something and it feels great to be contributing in a small way.”
As he headed off to another shoot on Monday, Stephen says he feels “there’s a real sense of community emerging from all the chaos”. “This is our war and I truly believe we are all fighting it together, in solidarity and empathy.
“A number of people have also been in touch who have lost close family members to the virus. For them, these photographs will have a very different meaning and speaking with them has really put things in perspective. Inconveniences are only that. Life and death trumps all.”
At each doorstep, Stephen takes two shots.
"One is representative of the lockdown - there are no rules - people are being creative and colourful, dressing up, dressing down, brandishing iPads, bassoons, Harry Potter books, staging scenes — anything goes! The other shot is a ‘normal’ family portrait.
"The contrast is delicious and it really shows how our current reality jars with what went before.
"There’s a lockdown story behind every person.”