Capturing Conflict with Seamus Murphy

Interview by Shana Chandra

As a photojournalist, Seamus Murphy has spent much of his career documenting conflict and capturing humanity in crisis.

Whether it be his work in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Syria, Washington DC, or in his home country of Ireland, Murphy snatches moments that could be gone in a second, but in doing so, shows us that no matter who we are we do our best to survive. His most recent project is a documentary in collaboration with PJ Harvey entitled A Dog called Money. It would’ve been released in Australia during the film festival circuit later this year. The film catalogues Murphy’s return to Afghanistan, Syria, and DC, but this time with Harvey in tow, her poems mingling with his images, and resulting in the 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project and the documentary. I recently spoke with Seamus about his decades-long career, collaboration with Polly, and something called a ‘wolf story.’

How did you become a photojournalist?

I was into photography more than I was into photojournalism, and I was into journalism before I was into photography, funnily enough. I actually wanted to become a journalist, originally. I didn’t get into the journalism school in Dublin but instead, I got into this thing called Communications which was a very new thing, especially in Ireland. The picture-taking really started away from college, because college was very theoretical. I started taking pictures and I loved it and eventually thought, this could be what I want to do. So, I found a way to start making a living with photography and, of course, the easiest thing at that time was to work as a photographer for newspapers. Eventually, I became interested in foreign and international news and I got my opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 1994. That was really the beginning of it.

What are the most useful qualities to have as a photojournalist?

The qualities that are probably useful are ignoring all the best advice, not worrying too much about money, going with the flow a bit. I mean this is what I did, and I suppose I’m comfortable in uncomfortable situations and in things people would generally avoid, like shitty hotels, rotten food… I’m willing to put up with that to experience something very different and very unusual and alien to my normal life. I sort of crave that.

Have there been moments that you thought you wouldn’t survive?

Yeah, yeah [laughs].

Tell me about one.

Well, I’m not into wolf stories, really, but there have definitely been times when you know…. The weird thing is when it’s happening, you think to yourself, ‘Of course, this was going to happen, of course this was going to be the end. By going here, by doing this.’ I remember in 2012 [in Syria], we were walking behind enemy lines for hours and hours, and we didn’t know until we got to this village that we had actually been walking through villages that were Assad villages. We were being brought to them by a schoolteacher, who was an activist and our guide. He wanted us to visit an orchard at his house that he hadn’t been to in six months, and this was at four o’clock in the morning. So, we get to this fucking orchard, and we sit there eating these apples, and he’s saying, ‘Aren’t they lovely? They’re so sweet! I’ve got the sweetest apples in Syria!’ And then suddenly we start hearing this volley of Kalashnikov fire, really close. And we just started running. Luckily, we all started running in the same direction and I think we followed him; we ended up in a sort of train tunnel. I don’t know how we found this place, and it went on for about twenty minutes until he said, ‘It’s ok, we’re alright.’ I don’t know where that gunfire came from, I don’t know whether that gunfire was somebody who was guarding something and just shot… But anyway, in the middle of that I thought, ‘Well, of course, this was going to happen!’

You’ve been called a ‘poet with a camera,’ so it seems fitting that your images are accompanied by the words of other poets, whether it be PJ Harvey, Pat Ingoldsby, or the landays of Afghani women. Why do you think poetry fits your images so well?

I think it’s about capturing moments. That’s what I love about photography, that’s what I love about poetry. You’re not wholly conscious of a narrative that has to be sustained. In a film, it has to be 90 minutes if it’s a feature, or if it’s a documentary, generally speaking, it has to fit in with the best of the work. But I just find that these glimpses, these little flashes of life are… I mean that’s what I tried to do with the PJ Harvey film, A Dog Called Money. You know, some people didn’t like it, some people didn’t get it at all, for some people it didn’t make any sense; it made sense to me, but I love that. I love the unexpected, in a way. I love watching something that isn’t leading me up the garden path, something that keeps you on your toes but you’re still enjoying it. I think that’s what’s interesting about photography, that’s what’s interesting about poetry, and that’s why they’re allied and linked because they are these images, discreet images that often add up to the sum of their parts.

When Polly accompanied you on your travels, did you have plans for the documentary or did it just kind of happen while you were together?

It just happened. I mean, we did plan to do a project together which we hoped would become a record, a book and a movie, but that was a wish list that we weren’t sure would work out. But in terms of where we were going next, that wasn’t planned… At the end of that second trip to Afghanistan in December 2012, I thought, ‘I wonder if Polly wants to come and join, this would be a good place to come for our project.’ And then with America, it was similar; it was a process of where we’d like to go, where fits. We’d done Kosovo, we’d done Afghanistan, so we thought somewhere western, probably America, not L.A… DC, yeah! That’s where they make decisions about Afghanistan and Kosovo, and it made sense. There is this other side to DC that has social problems that people don’t talk about, and we thought that would be interesting because we went to Kosovo and Afghanistan and people think about those places as having problems.


That was the idea, but the film also had people writing about things like ‘poverty porn’. It’s a very ugly phrase. But the thing is, I didn’t see a lot of poverty. In places like Afghanistan, people may not have been driving cars, but they had food; I mean, they were struggling, but to me, it wasn’t showing dramatic images of people being poor, it was actually trying to record their lives. So, we thought DC would be a good balance for the other two.

What was your aim for A Dog Called Money and did you think you achieved it?

I wanted to really document the collaboration. This was me going back and also bringing someone who hadn’t been to those places and would bring a very, very different perspective and write very differently about it. So that was important. The aim of the film was to document the whole process. I suppose it was also to shake up the normal journalistic approach… What Polly was doing, her eyes were being opened up, but mine were too. She was writing about places in an extraordinary way, and I just thought that that would be interesting for people’s ideas about Afghanistan and Kosovo. It was an experiment. Not a risky experiment, but it was uncertain how it would all turn out. We had this pact, that if either of us didn’t like anything, we would just drop it. We wouldn’t pursue it.

Some of the criticism the film received seemed unfair. Accusations of exploitation and the like. Do you have anything to say about it?

I just question where it’s coming from. So, it’s better for someone like Polly to stay in London or stay in New York and write about places like Afghanistan but not go there? Is that better? Is that more honest? I don’t get it. And also, I’ve said this before when people ask me this, but had we been on assignment for National Geographic or The Sunday Times, taking Rupert Murdoch’s money, would that have given us a fucking license? Do we need to take money from a media tycoon to make it ok? I think it’s journalists looking for any angle that is going to get an extra second’s attention on the internet. It’s shallow, and everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but when the opinion is so ill-informed, I don’t have much respect for it.

When you come back to London after being in these countries where you witness so many things that other people don’t, how do you get back to your own life?

I somehow process it. I’m able to, I guess. If I wasn’t able to, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s like a doctor being squeamish—you’re not in the right profession. You’re there to do something. Of course, we all have times when things are too much for us; it’s not always the easiest, but I manage. What I see or what I’ve been through, I’m obviously able to tell the tale. But it’s far more shocking and traumatic for the people that are there with their families. You feel so much more fragile and vulnerable when it’s your own family. Whereas I’m doing this and there are calculated risks; I know I’m not going to be there forever. I think also, it’s been said many times, ‘the camera is a shield,’ and you’re there doing something, you’re busy. But then if I’m scanning an image from twenty years ago, and there’s time to look at that image and remember what happened, they can give me pause. The world is a dangerous place no matter where you are.

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