As most of the people I know can loudly and grievously attest to, I am an avid photographer. I love taking spontaneous snapshots of anything, really, particularly of the captivating and stunning landscapes dotted around Europe (see what I thought of the U.K.’s capital city). It’s so easy to whip out your digital camera abroad; in a matter of seconds, you can document the lively buzz and roaring atmosphere of Rome, or capture the sombre presence of a majestic cathedral in Cologne, or portray the beautiful stillness of life in Connemara.
Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Galway, taken on 02/04/2011
Photographs record our memories: friends that made us laugh, places we visited, a childhood pet. The magic of photography is that pictures can be recorded for posterity, eternally documenting major, significant events from our nation’s past for future generations as well as those smaller, more personal moments from our lives. A picture defies traditional boundaries of gender, age or race. It can envelop so many heartfelt sentiments, individual characters and different historical eras, even though it’s just a still image. Whether it takes a spectacular monochrome form or explodes with vivid, clashing and swirling colour, a photo triggers a deep, natural and essentially human response within us: emotion.
It’s the visual nature of photos that make them so intriguing and invaluable: the core of their purpose is that they encapsulate the unsaid. Photography conveys the true essence of life, grabbing and illuminating a brief moment in history, to hold in your hands. It can catch the dancing sunlight in someone’s eyes, reveal the joy of a single euphoric moment, or show the grief etched in an old widow’s face, frozen in the frame of time.
A photo is an echo of the past. We can never know what it was like to be there, but using archival photography, we can imagine what it was like to be amongst the crowd on that day, or what we would have felt as we watched eagle-eyed from a balcony. It can help us try to understand the incidents that unfolded.
The essence of photography gives it a unique appeal to everyone: professional historians sharply examine old pictures with a skilled and trained eye, as a firsthand document and primary source of the period they are researching; commercial artists, fashion models and paparazzi rely on the photojournalism industry for a living – using it to publicise and advertise brand names or to sell products – often building famed and well-established careers and earning hard cash for each portrait they produce; family members cherish the memories they have from looking at the framed snaps of their young niece or beloved old friend, far away in a distant country, not knowing when they’ll see them next.
Photography is of undeniable importance. Massive historical events like the first man on the moon, the announcement of the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 or even last April’s English Royal Wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton are painstakingly recorded by the world’s media for not only our benefit, but to preserve our immediate past for the analysation and social commentary of future generations.
The First Steps on the Moon, from NASA website
The perspective of the photographer, both physically and mentally, will alter the image they take for the viewer: the same photo they take may be interpreted differently by every single person that sees it, who will have a distinctive emotional reaction to it. The photo can be manipulated, edited or discreetly altered, because a photograph is fundamentally an image that serves a purpose: it’s taken by the photographer to make you feel something.
Every picture will outlast the mortal human beings within it. We will always feel a connection to the haunted faces staring out of dusty portraits, daring the present not to forget their pain or lose them to oblivion, loudly claiming their place as people that once inhabited this earth, reminding us that they too had hopes and thoughts and heartache. Their very soul gazes out from that last remaining piece of them. That tiny scrap of a photo marks their legacy on this planet, and one day will mark ours.
I have many photos plastering the walls of my room – relatives, old friends, new friends, holidays and birthdays. But I also have empty photo frames propped on the table, given as gifts, that are not yet filled, patiently waiting for more good memories from my life to complete them.
The only remaining piece of my great-great-grandparents' legacy, their family portrait: Daniel McKenna and Mary Hanafin, c. 1910