Miriam O'Connor: When the family farm became a place of solace and photographic inspiration

After the death of her brother, Miriam O'Connor's photography helped her deal with the grief and an adjustment to a new life, writes Colette Sheridan.
Miriam O'Connor: When the family farm became a place of solace and photographic inspiration
Miriam O'Donovan and bovine assistant: "This was a new departure for sure and I had reservations about it."

After the death of her brother, Miriam O'Connor's photography helped her deal with the grief and an adjustment to a new life, writes Colette Sheridan.

When photographic artist, Miriam O'Connor, lost her brother, Jerome, to cancer in 2013, she moved back from Dublin to run the family farm just outside Macroom, along with her sister, Sheila. Jerome, who was only 49 when he died, had looked after the farm for nearly three decades.

"Somebody had to keep the show going," O'Connor says. It's a kind of homage to Jerome and also, we had to run the farm to support my mum. My father died when I was eleven."

Traumatised by the loss of her only brother, O'Connor took photographs around the farm "as a way to survive, to get through things."

Having done a masters on the ethics of photography at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design, followed by exhibitions and publications, it was quite natural for O'Connor to continue her photography.

"My practice is informed by my everyday experiences. This was a new departure for sure and I had reservations about it. I was conscious of the ethics of what I was doing. It's a small country. You have to be conscious that you're exposing vulnerabilities. My family was used to me taking photographs for the past decade. But there were photographs along the way that my sister and my mum weren't that keen on. When that was the case, I said they wouldn't be used publicly. "

Taking a documentary-like approach to photographing her surroundings, O'Connor began to question the role of photography and "whether it was well equipped to articulate the heartache and the relocation and the loss I was feeling. I thought the images were quite emotive. I had reservations about over-sentimentalising the loss. I think that's a danger. Nostalgia and over-sentimentality are a little bit problematic.

"So a couple of years into the work, I changed course. The catalyst was when we were trying to do some fencing and needed to identify the names of things we needed from the Dairygold Co-Op. I decided to take photographs so the co-op would be able to tell me what I needed in order to replace these fence posts. It was almost like an enlightenment. I thought it was brilliant because it's using photography with a different kind of purpose. I found it insightful that photography could be less emotive and more associated with function."

Armed with a new approach, O'Connor began to think about all about the daily tasks undertaken on the beef farm. She produced log books, with photographs. "They were almost like a manual, from how to replace stakes and various other jobs."

O'Connor took a photographic inventory of everything on the farm. "I like the idea of indexing things. There's a certain kind of objectivity to it that might serve to articulate the story better." Always questioning what she is doing, O'Connor had a realisation. "I had pointed the camera at almost everything on the farm. I felt somehow that I should be accounted for myself. To take an ethical stance, I needed to face the camera, to be present in this work. So I undertook a series of self portraits over a farming year, using a tripod and remote cable release."

The self portraits became a kind of ritual. "At the end of that process, I was wondering how does this really function."

O'Connor, who enjoys doing the crossword in the Irish Examiner's farming pages, says that in many ways, her photographic project had the qualities of a crossword. "It is made up of all these little things. Towards the end of my work, I began to accept my different approaches as all being meaningful. They all matter."

The result is a photographic exhibition at the Sirius in Cobh, entitled Tomorrow is Sunday. A prominent image in the show is that of a Leyland Cypress tree that became a refuge when O'Connor was struggling emotionally. She printed every single photograph of it that she had taken, amounting to nearly 200 shots. It is presented in a piece that is almost two metres high "and actually looks like a crossword."

O'Connor reached a compromise on how photography can function in circumstances like hers. Just like the grieving process, it raises questions and manifests itself in different phases over a period of time.

The photographic project helped O'Connor's grief over the loss of her brother. "It gave me a keener understanding of the work he would have done down through the years and how difficult it would have been."

Tomorrow is Sunday can be seen online at siriusartscentre.ie. The exhibition will continue for the month of August when the gallery opens. It will go to the RHA in March 2021

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up