About 10 years go I came across this photograph. The caption suggests that it was taken during the Famine of 1845-9 in Ireland. It wasn’t. True, it is very similar to the scenes recorded in cabins throughout the west of Ireland and graphic illustrations of such scenes were published in illustrated newspapers at the time. There is no record, however, of any photograph of people dying of starvation in the 1845-9 famine. Indeed a photograph like this would have been impossible in the early stages of photography – invented less than a decade before the famine. As a result he photograph has been dismissed by some people as a fake, the harsh pool of light suggesting a studio staging.
I set out to look for the original and test its authenticity. I never found it, but I found the next best thing -the original document in which the photograph was first published. The photograph is entitled ‘A Sick Family Carraroe’ and is one of 18 photographs that were published in a pamphlet entitled ‘Relief of Distress in the West and South of Ireland, 1898.’ The photographs were taken in April during an inspection of conditions in Connemara by Thomas L. Esmonde, Inspector of the Manchester Committee. He was reacting to reports of famine in Conamara. He inspected a dozen houses in which he found people lying on the floor, covered with rags and old sacks and barely able to move from a combination of influenza and hunger.
The search for the photograph became the basis of an idea for a TV series on social documentary photography or, to put it another way, a social history of documentary photography in Ireland in the 19th century. I pitched the idea to a producer and a broadcaster in 2011 and funding was eventually secured from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in 2014 for a six part series based on my research. TG4 will begin broadcasting Trid an Lionsa or ‘Through the Lens’ tomorrow Sunday 25 October 2015.
I haven’t been involved in in the production itself, just the research into historical social documentary photography and the people who work in this area. This material has been “translated into television” by Cathal Watters (Oíche na Gaoithe Móire) and follows the TG4 controversial format of presenter driven, on-the-road info-tainment. (http://wp.me/p56Bmf-5g).
I have no idea what to expect. Like a colleague I will be watching from behind the couch … hoping! It’ll be interesting to see how the balance between a social history of documentary photography and ‘factual’ entertainment works out. I know some key “voices” were excluded but that is the unenviable task of a producer. Either way it promises be an intriguing televisual event and, at the very least, it should create an awareness of the rich resource that exists in photographic archives and collections around the country.
Jane W. Shackleton, Pioneering Photographer and Unsung Hero of the Gaelic Revival
Alfred Cort Haddon: Haddon and the Aran Islands
Famine Photography: Photographs were taken: documenting the second famine in Connemara