Seamus Murphy – From Ireland to Kosovo via Afghanistan
By Dakota Hall/ Kosovo 2.0
This year, DokuFest was once again proud to play host to Seamus Murphy, a London-based photographer and video artist originally from Ireland. Murphy’s relationship with DokuFest dates back to 2011, when he and PJ Harvey participated in a panel discussion and presented the twelve films Murphy directed for Harvey’s album, “Let England Shake.” This year, Murphy returned to DokuFest to present some of his work and launch the DokuPhoto exhibition.
Though Murphy’s career has spanned several countries and a few decades, his work that has generated the most recent excitement in Kosovo has been his collaborations with PJ Harvey. From 2011 to 2014, the pair traveled together through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC, working on a series of poems, photos, songs and films. Last year, they published a book of photos and poems entitled “The Hollow of the Hand.” This spring, Murphy and Harvey also released a number of songs and music video inspired by the trip, including “The Wheel,” which is about Kosovo.
PJ Harvey wasn’t able to attend this year’s DokuFest herself as she’s currently on tour, but she recorded a special message for visitors, complete with an original poem inspired by Prizren that was screened at the opening ceremony.
On Sunday (August 7), Murphy gave a presentation of some of his work in Kino Klubi. After explaining a bit about his background and early career — that he was never formally trained in photography, broke into the industry by photographing for the Independent and later worked for a Swedish paper — he showed photos from his most recent collection, “The Republic,” published earlier this year.
The subject of his latest book is this year’s 100th anniversary of Ireland’s independence from Britain. After nearly thirty years of living abroad, Murphy returned to Ireland to seek out the texture of modern life, looking for “every bit of nuance” he could find — a search reflected in the photos’ rich colors. He wanted to understand what the Irish people have done with their independence. “What was it that people fought for?” he asked. “What did we do with that freedom?”
Murphy was also interested in capturing notable changes in the country since the era of independence, such as the increase in immigrant communities and the boom in industry and work.
Though most of his career has been spent overseas and/or in conflict zones, Murphy says “The Republic” was the most difficult project he’s done so far. He felt shier photographing his home country, as being a tourist affords you a different kind of dynamic with your subjects. However, he feels like a sort of outsider in Ireland after spending so much of his life abroad, giving him a unique perspective on the country, which is now both familiar and foreign to him.
Before spotlighting his birthplace, Murphy built much of his career by photographing and developing a close relationship with a country quite different from Ireland: Afghanistan. His book “A Darkness Visible” chronicles his trips to Afghanistan between 1994 and 2011, a period of immense change in the country. Murphy saw the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, subsequent civil war, the rise of the Taliban and the turning point of 9/11, when Afghanistan changed from being a country that received little international media attention to being “the center of the world.” During the US invasion and occupation, Murphy choose to stay focused on the Afghans, believing their perspectives and experiences to be more important than those of US soldiers.
Murphy returned to Afghanistan a few years ago for a photo and video collaboration with Eliza Griswold, about Landays, a traditional form of Pashtun poetry told by and for women.
The idea initially presented a challenge to Murphy as Afghan women don’t have a large presence in public life and typically aren’t comfortable showing their faces or hair to men outside their families. Murphy asserts that he didn’t want to “sneak” any aspects of their lives that weren’t his to take and wanted to produce something the women he worked with would be happy with too.
So rather than focusing on women’s physical appearances, Murphy and Griswold’s video project, entitled “Snake,” is about their poetry.
Landay poems consist of two lines, and are usually passed down anonymously and orally, as many of the women who tell them are illiterate. The anonymity allows poets greater freedom to explore certain topics, so Landays are often humorous, dark, politically critical or used as an everyday means of resistance. Murphy felt that Landays serve as a sort of lens the women use to examine their lives, so by highlighting their poems, he could highlight their perspectives. Many of the women who shared Landays with Murphy and Griswold didn’t want their voices in the project, so the poems were re-recorded by an interpreter and are accompanied by visuals from around the country.
You can catch the outdoor exhibition of some of Murphy’s photos taken in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC as part of DokuPhoto at DokuFest 2016 in Prizren this week on the north side of the river, near the big mosque.
Kosovo 2.0 is DokuFest’s official media partner. This article is part of a series of pieces written during DokuFest 2016. Kosovo 2.0 is a print and online magazine bringing you voices unfettered and unafraid.