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Eileen O'Leary



I have put together this website, a retrospective of my work, as a tribute to my father who passed away a year ago. I have been documenting issues around the world since 1985 and throughout my life have been most fortunate to have the love, support and understanding of family and friends. My father Denis died at the age of eighty nine, a life well lived; he truly was an inspiration.

It has been a difficult year, a year of reflection. Photography has been my passion; it has taken me to many places around the world and most importantly it has allowed me to meet people and learn from the lives they live; in so many instances it has been a humbling experience.

I teach students of all ages as it gives me pleasure to pass on a love of photography; when they attend a course I let them know that the most important photographs that they will ever take will be those of the people they care about. How true that is. Of the thousands of photographs that I have archived the most important to me are of my family.

The photographs that I have selected for this website depict the issues that have been most important to me, the images that still resonate. I believe that it is critical for the documentary photographer to inform a wider audience about situations seen at first hand, and as a result, to encourage people to take action themselves.

My father battled Alzheimer’s disease, he used to ask me each morning, ‘Are you travelling?’ It was only then that I realised how much time I had spent away and the concerns that he might have had for my safety. Deciding if that time was well spent has been part of my reflections.

Over the years my work has developed and I now think very carefully about each image that I take and what its purpose is. I spend a considerable amount of time facilitating community projects; photographic, film, social history and drama, encouraging people to develop their confidence and skills. I’ve been fortunate to work with the same groups over a decade and have been able to see that photography and the written word are tools for empowerment.

I write this in my father’s garden in Bantry, County Cork, thinking of his encouragement and enduring love.

Eileen O’Leary – August 2015


All images and text copyright ©2016 Eileen O’Leary

Eileen O'Leary

Eileen on location in Ireland

Eileen on location in County Kerry


I took a photograph of a homeless man in Santa Cruz, California, in November 1985; it was the start of my professional career as a freelance documentary photographer and the beginning of my interest in street photography.

The man turned to look at me; aggressive and questioning, he had no idea why the picture was being taken. I was intrusive and plain rude, pointing the camera with no prior interaction.
When I looked through the viewfinder and pressed the shutter I knew that I had made a fundamental error. I let the camera hang round my neck, and smiled at the man, a smile of apology and walked up to him to introduce myself and shake his hand. From that moment a real connection was made.

After a while he took my camera, gave it to his friend, and asked him to take our photograph. The resulting picture caught the connection and taught me a lesson – it ensured that I always seek permission for a shot and leave my ego in the camera bag where it belongs.

I printed the photographs in Santa Cruz late that night: as the initial image appeared in the developer tray I was exhilarated. The knowledge that meeting people, listening to their stories, documenting their experiences and informing others of the social issues I was surrounded by gave me the impetus to try and make a difference through photography. For me it was an opportunity to make change; the camera became a political tool, a witness to injustice.

Photography is about passion, I’ve been fortunate to experience that passion and excitement every time I pick up the camera. It’s a privilege to take a photograph of another person.

My early photographs in San Francisco were taken with a Pentax MX, a 35mm manual camera with a standard 50mm lens that I brought to California when I moved there from London.


Homeless in Santa Cruz

“After a while he took my camera, gave it to his friend, and asked him to take our photograph. The resulting picture (below) caught the connection and taught me a lesson – it ensured that I always seek permission for a shot and leave my ego in the camera bag where it belongs”.



‘The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print is the performance.’ Ansel Adams

My inspiration has come from people who have energy, passion, dedication and integrity; people who make brave choices in the pursuit of their art, the work that they do. The images they leave behind make a difference and live on.

In 1985 I moved from London to California. Carmel was a mecca for fine art photographers, and Yosemite was the ultimate rock climbing challenge. For me it was a dream come true. America respected the photographic image and Carmel was an enclave where people lived and breathed photography, most often, landscapes, still life and the nude. At the heart of this creative hub was the legacy of Ansel Adam’s monumental photographs and his success in lobbying to conserve the environment. His spiritual home was Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.

An introduction to Ansel’s work and philosophy brought me knowledge of the people that he knew, worked with and admired; Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, John Sexton, Paul Strand and Edward Weston. It also introduced me to his darkroom, ‘the darkroom’ of his dreams where he spent every morning of the last twenty four years of his life. His life was filled with photography. Despite the many projects he was involved in he was always worried about money, he was sixty eight before he could turn away work and focus on his own projects. He printed in his darkroom till he died at the age of 80 in 1984.

As well as a being a photographer Adams was also a writer and teacher who felt compelled to pass on his understanding of photographic technique through his books, articles and many workshops in Yosemite. The images of his that I revere are; Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941; Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite, California, 1960 and the portrait of his two friends Georgia O’Keefe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1937. It’s humbling to know that this photographer was equally skilled as a pianist. His concept of visualisation resonates with me. Most photographers do this intuitively, and visualise ahead of time the scene, event, or person they are about to photograph and can see in their mind’s eye the composition they would ideally like to achieve. The process brings confidence and mental preparation and results in better photographs. Adams also felt that a competent photographer need only make one negative plus a backup for safety, he dismissed bracketing as, ‘Nothing but indecision.’ He was a great technician and happy to discuss any technical details in the making of a photograph but always reluctant to talk of the ‘meaning’ of a particular image, he felt that, ‘The images should speak for themselves.’

Adam’s had great respect for Dorothea Lange and her work. The images she created while working for the Farm Security Administration, following the migration of families in the Great Depression of 1936 encouraged him to document the injustice of the internment Camp in Manzanar. After the bombing of the U. S. Naval base, Pearl Harbour, in Hawaii by Japanese forces, a ‘Civilian Exclusion Order’ meant that Japanese American families were confined in camps from March 21, 1942 until September 1945. Lange also visited the camps and was shocked by the injustice of the act, ‘This is what we did. How did it happen? How could we?’ It was a response to antI-Japanese hysteria. President Roosevelt issued an Executive order for the forcible removal of all people of Japanese descent on the west coast and they were sent to relocation centres for the duration of the war. It was incarceration.

Lange took to the streets of San Francisco in 1933 and made the image White Angel Bread Line depicting men unemployed and queuing for food, a stark and telling picture. Her seminal image, Migrant Mother (4), Florence Thompson, was taken in Nipomo, California in 1936. The photograph was made at the end of a long day. She was heading home and passed an encampment of pea pickers, tired and eager to get back to her family seven hours away she passed it by; twenty miles later she made a U turn and drove back to the camp where she found a mother with her four children sitting in a makeshift tent, depressed and hungry. The pea crop had failed and there was no work, the family would have to move on. The resulting photographs changed the way people viewed the migrant population and still have as much power today.

As a child Lange suffered from polio, overcoming the stigma and learning to cope with a limp gave her a dogged determination, a driving energy to succeed and a compassion for those less fortunate than herself. She felt that, ‘The words that come from the people are the greatest.’ She spent time gaining the trust of the people that she photographed, she let children play with her camera, and listened to the personal backgrounds of the people she met. As a result she earned the right to photograph people when they felt comfortable with her.

Lange was fortunate to work directly for the manager of the FSA, Roy Stryker; he was a visionary and gave her the freedom in the field to photograph whatever she felt was important. He also employed John Steinbeck in 1938 to write about the conditions that he saw, the resulting work inspired Steinbeck to write The Grapes of Wrath, a book that truly shocked Americans.

Like Adams, Dorothea was always on the brink of financial disaster. ‘You can’t deny what you must do no matter what it costs. And with me it was always expenditure to the last ditch. I know the last ditch. I’ve lived on the last ditch.’ Adams and Lange worked together on a number of assignments one of which was sponsored by Fortune magazine to document the shipyards in the Bay area in 1944, ‘Ansel depicted the grand view of the environment, Dorothea the small telling aspects of the workers’ lives’.

The 1950s saw the birth and popularity of the photo essay in Life magazine. Photographers such as Lange and Adams had the opportunity to present whole stories, complete documentations, presented in large format, it was an exciting time. The editors of Life celebrated photography, their readers were taking more and more of their own photographs and the Eastman Kodak laboratories in Rochester, New York were operating seven days a week round the clock processing film and producing prints. In 1954 Life sponsored Dorothea Lange’s trip to Ireland to create a photographic essay documenting rural life.

Life magazine celebrated its 30 year anniversary in 1966 with a special double issue dedicated to celebrating the modern revolution of photography. The photographs included in the edition clearly showed the development of documentary photography. In the 1880s Jacob Rits, a police reporter for the New York Evening Sun, began taking pictures of the city tenements to support a crusade against conditions. In 1900 Eugene Atget set out to make a complete record of life in Paris. In America Alfred Steiglitz opened the way to modern photography and Lewis Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform by documenting child labour in factories and mills.

Alfred Eisenstaedt felt that life was. ‘A succession of fleeting moments….when such an instant arrives I am never quite aware of myself or what I am doing. I react intuitively.’ As he did when he captured the exuberance of the sailor as he swept a nurse off her feet in Time Square, New York on V-J Day. As Robert Capa did when he photographed the death or a soldier during the Spanish civil war. For Henri Cartier-Bresson the quest was capturing the ‘decisive moment’. In England Bill Brandt led the way with ten years dedicated to documenting all levels of British society many of his photographs appearing in the magazine Picture Post the British equivalent of Life magazine.

In 1973 Life enabled photographer W. Eugene Smith to bring attention to Minamata disease in a dramatic photo essay. Smith’s most outstanding photograph showed Ryoko Uemura holding her daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko suffered mercury poisoning in the womb as a result of the mismanagement of chemicals by the company Chisso. Smith was attacked and seriously injured by company employees resulting in a permanently damaged eye. As a result of his photographs the company paid compensation to 2,500 people.

In 1979, Ansel Adams was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine and Eve Arnold travelled to China returning with ground-breaking images. China was not only a mystery at this time but was also feared. Arnold’s documentation showed the lives of ordinary people and gave an understanding and sense of compassion to the scenes and the people that she photographed. I was stunned by the vibrant colours of the Inner Mongolia images and will always remember her image of a woman in the militia lying with her horse on a training exercise; a perfect understanding and trust between the horse and woman. Every photograph told a story and brought information that was at that time unknown to the everyday reader. Each image was intriguing, the people photographed going about
their daily lives, engaged in work, cultural activities and education. As a photographer I yearned to have been there, to have had that opportunity.

While living in America I first learned of the work of Eugene Richards and Sebastiao Salgado, photographers who with their images force us to confront the society in which we live. Thirty five years later, their dedication, integrity and constant development is my daily inspiration.What would I like to have experienced? To have worked with Ansel Adams in his darkroom; attended the exhibition, ‘The Family of Man’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and to have been in the crowd to have witnessed Dr Martin Luther King deliver the words, ‘I have a dream.’


Operation Just Cause?

The Invasion of Panama

On December the 18th, 1989, following a series of incidents that culminated in the death of an American soldier, President George Bush sent 24,000 troops to Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega, military dictator and one time CIA informant, who was under indictment within the United States as a drug dealer and racketeer.

On January the 4th, 1990, as a concerned photographer, I flew into Panama City on the first commercially available flight after the U.S. bombing. In the heart of the city is an area called El Chorrillo that was devastated as a result of the invasion. This area housed the poorest families in the city. As a result of the bombardment 18,000 of these people were homeless and forced to live in a converted air hanger in Balboa, a part of the Canal Zone controlled by the U.S. Military. Each family was allocated a cubicle measuring 10 feet by ten feet and constructed of wooden struts and linen sheeting.

On the night of the invasion when the bombing began, Clementina Arroyo, aged 60, and her husband Nicholas were asleep in bed. Clementina escaped from their home by jumping from a second story window, breaking both legs, while Nicholas sustained severe body burns running down a flaming staircase. I met, interviewed, and photographed Clementina in Balboa clinic and Nicholas in the San Thomas hospital. They had not seen each other since the night of the invasion.

The first day I spoke to Clementina she had received news that her 107 year old mother had died. Neighbours had informed the elderly woman that Panama City had been devastated and that her daughter Clementina was dead. The old lady died of shock. I arranged for Clementina and Nicholas to meet. I photographed what was left of their home.

Why did I go to Panama? An overriding feeling that President Bush had made the wrong decision, a concern that the media coverage was inadequate, and a wish to see for myself the real situation.

What I found was indeed different in many aspects to what I had envisioned. The Panamanians in the poorer sector of the city welcomed the American intervention, seeing it as an end to Noriega’s oppression that they felt powerless to remove. They were exultant that Noriega had been physically taken out the country. His headquarters had been right in the heart of El Chorrillo; they had been fearful of his private army, The Dignity Battalion, and bitter about his lack of concern for their need of employment and education for their children. They felt that the U.S. would help rehouse them in the light of the war damage. I found that in the main the U.S. military force on the ground comprised of young boys, frightened, friendly and mostly bored.

I cannot think of El Chorrillo and the Refugee Camp without feeling that there is no cause that can justify the decimation of civilian homes and civilian lives. The mainstream media lauded President Bush as a tough and aggressive decision-maker in contrast to his reputation as a wimp. Eight months later the United States Congress had made no decision concerning the financial aid required to rebuild the lives of 18,000 civilians whose homes were destroyed.

I returned to Panama in November, 1989 and the air hanger was still full of displaced people; a few families had moved out of the discomfort and were camping in an old school house in El Chorrillo. Mass graves were being exhumed in the hope that grief stricken relatives could identify their relatives who ‘disappeared’ on the night of the invasion and could be respectfully buried by their families. Clementina and Nicholas were living together in the refugee camp, Clementina no longer had casts on her legs but Nicholas still required medical treatment for his burns.

I returned to ‘Home Sweet Home’ in El Chorrillo to give people copies of the photographs that I had taken. This was a small housing development that had remained intact throughout the invasion, it was good to be able to see that children were less traumatised though their drawings still reflected scenes of airplanes with bombs descending on people.

Media coverage had all but stopped, Panama was no longer newsworthy. The groups I was in contact with who continued to help Panamanians in need were; The Fellowship of Reconciliation in Santa Cruz, The Resource Centre for Nonviolence and The Humanitas Foundation in Palo Alto.

At this stage I was using Olympus OM1 cameras, Ilford film and Kodak slide film. The sensitivity of the situation in Panama meant that after each day of shooting film I made my way to a hotel in the centre of the city, found a reputable traveller who was returning to America, and gave them my film to post to my base in California. I really wasn’t sure that when I left Panama I would get the film out safely. Luckily everything arrived back in Carmel Valley and was waiting on my arrival.

In this age of digital photography with instant feedback after every shot, I remember back then the terror of looking at the rolls of unexposed film on my bed in a hostel and hoping that I had managed to capture the images that I had seen.

The photographs that I took were seen in many publications, not mainstream, as I didn’t have a mainstream message, but publications like The San Francisco Bay Area Guardian who were interested in humanitarian and justice issues. I spoke on radio stations and local television channels raising awareness about the plight of the refugees. I printed the exhibition photographs in a darkroom in Phoenix, Arizona. The process of bringing photographs from the negative to a large exhibition print is nerve wracking and it’s not possible to fully appreciate the result until they are all hung in one place.

The thirty six images were exhibited in The Photographic Centre, Carmel, California. The gallery, known for fine art photography, opened its doors to photojournalism and issue-based photography for the first time, it was a ground-breaking event. Photographs from the exhibition won awards from Texas University and the San Francisco Eye Gallery. The exhibition travelled to the Templebar Photographic Gallery in Dublin, Ireland.

After two years, people like Clementina and Nicholas were eventually rehoused; not back in the city where they had lived all their lives, but outside the city in poorly and cheaply constructed homes. Financial aid was slow in arriving, and when it did not all of it trickled down to those for whom it had been allocated.

How was this work financed? In between trips I worked as an IT consultant in Silicon Valley – it helped. Making the decision to work as a freelance photojournalist ensured I could concentrate on the issues that were important to me, it gave me freedom. The downside of course is that there is little money to be made in this work so it helps to have a few other skills to fall back on. I have never regretted the decision.

Operation Just Cause?

On The Streets

I have early memories of homeless men lying on benches on the Thames Embankment in London. Those lonely, cold and abandoned people live on in my mind. In Dublin in September 2016, there are 2,020 children existing in temporary accommodation; the issue has not gone away here or abroad. Having a home, no matter how humble, gives people dignity and hope. Sitting on the pavement waiting for a coin to be dropped into a cup is demoralising, demeaning and frightening. The feet that walk by don’t stop; other people have somewhere to go, lives to live, food to eat, shelter, warmth and people who care for them. Life on the street is isolating; the homeless become invisible. I’ve always felt that it could so easily be me sitting in that doorway wrapped in a cardboard box sheltering from the wind and rain.

In August 1989 I was living in California; I started a project on the streets of San Francisco that changed the way I viewed the world, introduced me to the wider issues of homelessness and ensured that documentary photography would be a continuing passion in my life. My aim was to learn, inform, make a difference and encourage people to become involved in social issues on both a personal and political level. During this period I was lucky enough to meet a number of inspirational community leaders who were making change, challenging the status quo and providing compassionate services for those in need; their actions have ensured that in San Francisco, and beyond, their visionary projects remain, have prospered and are still meeting the needs of people whose lives are on the streets.

I began the project in Civic Centre, San Francisco; it was a place for people to congregate on the streets; plenty of long benches to stretch out on and not too much hassle from the police. I learned that people made their way to the Glide Memorial Church, 330 Ellis Street; a place of welcome, refuge and three hot meals a day. Lines of people, including families, waited patiently to crowd into the dining room where volunteers cooked and served appetising and nutritious meals. When I first documented Christmas day at the Glide, Cecil Williams, an African American Minister, was very much in evidence handing out plates of steaming food; he had been heading the community for twenty six years. The Glide was a rallying point supporting the disenfranchised, a compassionate and caring organisation that welcomed everyone who desperately needed help. The Glide’s strength was its emphasis on community action, it was an oasis for people in need.

Early one morning walking through Union Square I noticed a man sitting on the pavement outside an art gallery, he was isolated among the flurry of people making their way to offices and shops. By his feet was a simple hand written cardboard sign that read; ‘AIDS VIRUS – your donation can help me thru a most difficult time of what’s left of my life. Your past generosity has been most appreciated, thank you.’ From that morning I began to get to know Mike and his story. He had contracted HIV via a blood transfusion, and as a result had lost his job, his wife and his home. His aim was to get off the streets and back to work using his skills as a carpenter; initially he felt it was an insurmountable challenge. Every day he sat in the street and at night set up a cardboard shelter in a doorway down a quiet alley.

While talking to Mike I noticed a priest being hauled off by a couple of law enforcement agents. He had been panhandling, standing beside his home-made banner that asked people to donate for his nightly soup run in the Tenderloin district. Each time he set up in Union Square one of the businesses would phone the local station and request his removal; they and their customers found his presence an uncomfortable reminder of the gap between the haves and the have nots. The police were obliged to go through the procedure of taking Father Thomas away in a squad car but always speedily discharged him: they appreciated the efforts he made in the early hours of the morning providing hot soup to hungry homeless people. Father Flowers was a familiar figure in Union Square, respected by most, an irritant to others. The mornings he dedicated to collecting money and explaining his mission to passers-by, the afternoons to buying nutritious ingredients which Ed, the Cook, turned into delicious soup served in the early hours of the morning out of the side of a 1979 Volkswagen van.

Minister Cecil Williams and Father Thomas Flowers made a very real difference to the lives of those in San Francisco who were living on the edge, hungry, homeless and most often HIV positive. They accepted people with compassion regardless of their race, creed, gender or sexual orientation, it was a privilege to see them at work.

On The Streets

The AIDS Pandemic

On the 7th of June 1990 I was in the Castro district of San Francisco. Standing for the first time in a small room at the top of a house known as Maitri Hospice; the window overlooked Hartford Street, a tree lined residential area. The stillness in the room was palpable. Bruce lay in the bed, Christ like, his emaciated arms out stretched resting on the metal rails of the bed. Issan Dorsey, the Abbot of the centre held Bruce’s hand and introduced me. This was my first experience of the AIDs pandemic.

Bruce has been with us for three months and has stopped speaking; his partner John visits every day. I’ll leave you to get to know each other. Issan quietly left the room descending the stairs with difficulty: he too was living with AIDs.

Issan created the hospice in 1987 to ensure that gay men who were dying as a result of AIDS would have a home and friendship in the last stages of their lives. He was fifty seven when I met him; he’d been a drag queen, heroin addict, dealt drugs and managed a rock band. His life changed when he discovered Buddhism; he left the streets and decided to make a difference to the lives of men who were sick and whose families had rejected them.

I had been invited into the hospice to document the people and the place with a view to exhibiting the photographs to raise awareness about the disease and the work of the volunteers. I was walking into a new world and had no idea of what lay ahead. What I did know at that moment in Bruce’s bedroom, was that I was facing an immense challenge and that I was being given an extraordinary opportunity.

My tripod, cameras and equipment all felt intrusive, the smallness of the room meant that I was very close to Bruce. His head was deep in the pillow and his eyes were focused on the window and the tree outside. In those few moments I wondered about the ethics of the situation, how he would feel, would his partner think I was doing the right thing?

I knew nothing about gay culture and the issues. Quentin Crisp had been a life model when I attended art school in London but he never felt comfortable with the term gay; ahead of his time certainly, but not an activist or spokesperson for gay rights, he was simply Quentin – a one off.

I was equally ignorant about HIV and AIDs. I knew only what I’d discovered on the streets of San Francisco where I was photographing and writing about Mike O’Shea who was homeless and sat outside an art gallery on Union Square with a cardboard sign that read; ‘AIDS VIRUS – your donation can help me thru a most difficult time of what’s left of my life. Your past generosity has been most appreciated, thank you.’ I was just getting to know Mike and his story. He had contracted HIV via a blood transfusion, and as a result had lost his job, his wife and his home.


His eyes veered from the window to look directly into mine.

Bruce, I said, I want to create a photo essay about you, the volunteers who support you and the people who are important to you. Would you allow me to photograph you? Would you be happy to take part in this project? If so could you blink as I have to be sure that you are OK with this.
Bruce blinked.

And so our days began. In the morning I would photograph and talk to Bruce explaining what I was trying to achieve; in the afternoon I would bring a contact sheet circled with the images that I felt worked and looked for his agreement. It was a partnership; just the click of the cable release as I tried to ensure that the image would be important for Bruce, would speak to the viewer and would stand the test of time.

One afternoon I climbed the last flight of stairs, entered his room and was confronted by a person dressed in black seated at Bruce’s bedside. John, aka Sister Explosion, Bruce’s lover, dressed as a nun in lace wimple, black leather jacket, long black fringed gloves a mini skirt, high heels, white face paint, crucifix earrings and red lipstick. It was my introduction to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Startling, irreverent, outrageous AIDs activists committed to educating the public about the disease, raising funds and lobbying the government for research into HIV and access to medication. John was an active member of the group and was dressed for a charity benefit that night.

Bruce had turned toward John, his hands relaxed and crossed over his chest: he gazed at me intently; this was a picture that he wanted, they’d been partners for years. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Did you know that Bruce was a photographer?

What a gift; I could hardly believe it, now I understood Bruce’s ready acceptance of the project, now I felt fully comfortable. The next morning I asked him if he would like to take his own self portrait as a gift for John. With the cable in his hand, he looked directly into the lens and with effort released the shutter on the camera.

On the afternoon of the tenth day Bruce was sleeping when I arrived, I sat next to his bed and looked through the contact sheets. His breathing became laboured, there was a rattle in his throat, an awful sound; I felt panicked and knocked on the door of the next room raising the attention of one of the monks. He looked at Bruce, took his hand, bent over and urgently whispered prayers into his ear. He died while I was there. John arrived, grief stricken, and was held by Ted, one of the volunteers. I felt bereft. Death had come with unexpected swiftness.

I photographed the memorial service, a Buddhist ceremony. The walls were covered in memorabilia, photographs from earlier happy times when Bruce was strong, vital and handsome. John spoke about their life together and his sister was there to support him through it. I spoke about my ten days with Bruce and what that meant to me. What a privilege it had been to get to know him, to work with him. A silent, peaceful time encapsulated on film and in my mind. How Bruce had impacted the lives of all the people in the hospice and how images of him would help people understand that AIDs devastates lives and yet enhances them too.

I returned to my life in Carmel Valley and put away the photographs, it was too painful to look at them. There were few people with whom I could share the experience. Carmel was a Mecca for serious fine art photographers; none of them were documenting social issues, they were following in the footsteps of Ansel Adams a master of landscape photography. I travelled to Eugene in Oregon to Los Angeles and back to San Francisco to attend workshops on HIV and AIDs in order to learn about the disease so that I could become fully aware of the challenges facing people living with HIV.

In ten days I’d experienced an intense friendship and connection but nevertheless I had been behind the camera, protected, focused on producing images that would tell the story. The images were there but the person was gone; it was hard to deal with.

At the end of August I continued my documentation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and their work. I was worried about John who had decided not to have an HIV test. He was writing a memoir and wanted to focus on his work. Issan died in September and in November of that year I was back in Panama for the one year anniversary of the American invasion.

Chorillo, the poorest part of the city had been decimated in the attempt to capture Noriega. The resultant bombing had displaced residents of the area, they were still living in Albrook air hanger; families squeezed into small cubicles. Corruption was rife and funds for food and housing was being siphoned off. Mothers and wives met every day in the House of the Journalists to view photographs in the hope of locating missing and disappeared relatives buried in mass graves.

I left California in April 1992. I kept in regular contact with John by telephone, by now he was sick. He had decided that he wanted to make one last trip to Europe to revisit Paris where he and Bruce had spent a memorable vacation. We decided to meet; he was ready to look at the photographs that I’d taken of Bruce.

It was a shock to see John; he was rail thin; he was not going to survive. But he was delighted to be in Paris, it was his last adventure and he embraced it whole heartedly. It was difficult for him to view the images of Bruce, he wept, but he treasured them. We visited the Musée d’Orsay, I photographed; we sat at side walk cafes and talked about his childhood memories and the loss in his life: John had witnessed his father’s suicide.

We said goodbye at Charles de Gaulle airport, John holding the box of Bruce’s photographs close to his chest, me holding my camera with the final images of John.

The AIDS Pandemic


The Worst War

I’m sitting amidst sacks of corn on a United Nations flight from Luanda to Malanje. The plane banks sharply to the left and I glimpse the small arrivals shed. I’m tipped onto the metal floor as the pilot flies in crazy zig zags. UNITA forces are attempting to shoot the plane down. The pilot is calm, experienced; this is Angola where a civil war has raged for thirty years. He lands the plane, the sacks of food are swiftly unloaded and for the next ten days there are no flights.

I visited Angola in February 1994 to photograph the results of a nineteen year civil war. British and French landmines were crippling the young and the old and there were over 240,000 orphaned children as a result of the civil war. There had been relatively little media coverage in Ireland of what has been described the worst war in the world. It seemed that most of my friends and family knew very little about Angola. There was a sense of either ignorance or unease and I wanted to do something to change this.

In 1975 Portugal transferred power to three Angolan liberation movements who had not, since then, been able to agree on a power-sharing arrangement and had been almost incessantly at war.

In 1992 Angola returned to a vicious civil war in which a dissident group, UNITA, having lost a general election in September 1992, returned to military means to try to take power from the MPLA-PT (The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola – The Worker’s Party) who in 1992 formed the democratically elected government.

UNITA renewed a war that had begun 18 years previously and in which they had been supported by South Africa and the United States. Their refusal to accept the election results meant a lack of international support.

Throughout the trip I wrote and photographed as events occurred. What follows are extracts from my diary illustrating the problems that Angolans were facing on a daily basis.

Arrived in Luanda. There is no road transport to the town of Malanje as the 500 kilometres of road have been mined. I am writing this sitting on a United Nations World Food Programme relief flight that is delivering bags of maze to this stricken place. The city is encircled by rebel UNITA troops armed with U.S. Stinger missiles capable of taking down air craft at 16,000 foot. To avoid this danger the plane flies at 20,000 foot until directly over the government held city, spiralling down in a corkscrew fashion and landing on the city’s airstrip.
Spent the day with Scottish nurse Isobel Simpson, a Health Co-ordinator for the Aid Agency, Concern Worldwide. When aid workers for Concern first arrived in Malanje in November 1992 they built a feeding centre for malnourished children called Kasanga. Simon, a two year-old orphan, sat at the entrance to the building waiting for food and medical attention. The first of the thousands of children to be treated. Isobel said that Simon had been suffering badly from Kwashiorkor, a bloating disease that is a result of severe malnutrition. His face and legs were swollen and he had a faraway look in his eyes. He was also badly wounded in one leg. For a time Simon was in hospital and then returned to Kasanga where after three months he is a different little boy. The physical wounds have healed and nourishment and love have given him a reason to smile.
The shelling overnight has continued throughout the day. Yesterday in the village I saw civilians being taken by army trucks undergoing compulsory conscription; if there is any resistance people are shot. Caroline Dalton, a nurse from Dun Laoghaire, took me to meet Secunda, a frail and tiny ten year-old who had watched her father die in the hospital yesterday. Now she is alone in the world with nowhere to go. When I met Secunda she was clutching a soft toy rabbit, her only security and comfort; she was traumatised and suffering deep shock. She took us through the bush to find her home in a small village in a rural area of Malanje. The family home was small and bare of any belongings. A neighbour gave us her father’s identification card which would enable her to be placed in a local orphanage. Secunda walked away from her home without a glance back still holding her rabbit. The village is in the vicinity of the airport and a number of mortar rounds were fired close by as we made our way back to the truck. Secunda is spending her first night in the orphanage with twenty seven other children. Tears streamed down her face as she reluctantly said goodbye to Caroline, her only friend.
UNITA forces shelling from 3.00 am to 6.00am making it more difficult to access water as they are now closer to the river. I toured the hospital with Dr. John Howarth who works for Médicine Sans Frontiérs. The corridors of the hospital are dark and I was overwhelmed by the stench of gangrene and diarrhoea. The hospital is filled with tiny orphans who sit naked on rubber mats. Wards are small and cramped. Mothers hold undernourished babies against ulcerated breasts. Many children have lost the will to feed and lie sleeping. There is very little medical equipment to be seen in the hospital and no medication. A small child was shot last night and now lies on a hospital bed with a bullet lodged in its chest. In the grounds of the hospital is the mortuary where Secunda’s father lies, wrapped in a hospital blanket, waiting to be claimed and buried. I travelled to an outlying village where a man was killed today by a mine. His family and the villagers were mourning his death. He had been maimed in the head, arms and legs. There was an air of tension after the night of UNITA activity and a sense of the injustice of his death. His family asked me to photograph the man so that people in Europe could be made aware of the current situation. He left a family of five children.
Dawn breaks on Malanje after a night of constant shelling. At 4.00am a shell exploded within very close range of the house. I sit in bed reading and wait for the next explosion, later in the day make a move to the relative safety of the Catholic Mission. My new friend Matanda brings his three month-old son to say goodbye. If all goes well I will fly to Luanda in the morning. The baby is called Steve. Matanda wishes that I could take his son back to Ireland where he knows that his baby would be safe. I don’t know what to say.

It was difficult to leave Angola, remembering the children who were left with no families as a result of a war being fought with weapons supplied by Europe. The Angolans that I met wished for peace and happiness. I can always visualise the children who were recovering from malnutrition singing in the feeding centre at Mishindi. In 1994 Angola entered my dreams.


Enable Ireland

‘Deals on Wheels’

During 2002/03 I worked with adult service users in Enable Ireland Training Centre, Tralee, to document the problems they faced with lack of access to buildings, footpaths, bank cash machines, and transport systems in the main towns of County Kerry. 2003 had been designated European Year of People with Disabilities; service users hoped to highlight what for them were daily issues in the County to exhibit the photographs in Siamsa Tíra, the National Folk Theatre, libraries throughout the county and make a formal presentation to the local councillors in the hope that they could raise awareness and highlight some of the issues that they were confronting on a daily basis.

I worked with four service users; Bernard, George, Seamus and Paudie; I learned an enormous amount during the process. I photographed them in the towns of Killarney, Tralee and Listowel. Prior to the ‘Deals on Wheels’ project I had facilitated a photography course with the group in order to produce a calendar that could be used as a fundraiser for the organisation. It was evident that towns like Dingle were not wheelchair friendly, it was a challenge to use the pavements, enter a restaurant for lunch or locate a toilet that could accommodate a wheelchair. Thus the idea was formed to educate both the general public and also local government who could lobby for change and an inclusive society. In doing so the group were highlighting the Barcelona Declaration, the aim of which was to encourage local authorities to make provision for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the community it represents.

All four of the participants were politically active in their own areas. Having had to fight for education and training opportunities they were determined to make their voices heard about fundamental human rights. Initially we worked as a team and drew up a shot list that would show clearly the challenges that they were confronted with every day. It became evident to me that wheelchair users were just not considered. It was difficult to access buildings, meet friends, go to the cinema, have a pint in a pub, go to the library, use an internet café, post a parcel, and draw cash, either from an ATM or a bank counter. Travel was possible but daunting, not spontaneous, always pre planned. Boarding a flight was difficult, a train had space for one person, in the dining car only, and taxis neither had the space nor taxi drivers with the confidence or experience to help a wheelchair user. In fact if felt as though society had overlooked the needs of people with disabilities. Wheelchair users had an uphill struggle in all respects, life was a battle. It seemed to me that Bernard, George, Seamus and Paudie were pragmatists, all their achievements had been hard won.

The launch of the exhibition ‘Deals on Wheels’ in Siamsa Tíra was opened by the Mayor and transferred to the Kerry County Council offices where it was viewed by all the employees and visitors to the building. The exhibition travelled to all the libraries in the county and the group made their formal presentation to the county council members and made recommendations emphasising the importance of County Kerry ensuring the inclusion of people with disabilities as a high priority for the council.

I think that their voices were heard. Many of the improvements were slow in arriving but in 2003 Terry O’Brien, the new Major of Tralee, a wheelchair user, needed ramps installed in the Town Hall so that he could gain access to the chamber offices; it was reported in the Irish Times giving the issue national focus.

New buildings in the county had to be disability proofed to ensure that access was not an issue for wheelchair users. Schools recognised that children with disabilities needed equal opportunities for education. People with disabilities were included in voluntary and community steering groups to ensure that they could represent the opinions of their peers. Kerry County Council won the O2 Ability Award in both 2005 and 2006 for their determination and commitment throughout the organisation to create an environment where people with disabilities were given equal opportunities.

In December 2015 I met with Bernard in Killarney to review the photographs from the project and discussed the changes that had taken place and how daily life is for him now. Bernard lives in Killarney, if he wants to meet friends the most disability friendly environments are the new hotels in town.

Hotel lobbies have plenty of room and shopping in the larger stores is easier. You can’t swing a cat in most of the smaller shops and certainly can’t get my power wheel chair through the door or around the display cases.

The controls on the pedestrian crossings have been lowered so I can now reach them but there is no improvement to the pathways, they are narrow and uneven so you risk being tipped out of the chair. Likewise the ground in car parks can be very rough.

Pubs are not accessible, there is usually a step or a saddle at the front door so you need to go through the back door but you might encounter barrels in the corridor that you can’t get past so it’s a bit hit and miss.

Public telephones are no issue as I have a mobile phone and the model I have now has larger keys so is easier to use. The bank and the post office counters are still too high and banks don’t really want to see you they would prefer you to use ATMs; I can just about angle my chair to use one but I need assistance to see the screen.

Trash cans are still an issue, they are left out for collection early before people go to work and are on the pavement until people get home at night.

I took a flight from Kerry airport to Lourdes, you are carried onto the plane and sit in the front by the window, the leg room is very limited. There are improvements to travel, the new trains are great, there is more room but we still sit in the dining car. When you arrive at your destination taxis are more accessible though the drivers may not be trained to ensure the wheelchair is safely fixed in place. It can be nerve wracking.

I can’t be spontaneous about trips; if I need to go to Dublin for a meeting it takes lot of research and planning to ensure that I can be on the north side of the city on time; it can be exhausting, you need patience.

Terry O’Brien is a Community Development Officer with the Wheelchair Association in Tralee, I asked him what he feels is the major issue in 2016 for wheelchair users, he was very clear.

Employment is the issue. Employment is just not available and that’s down to employer’s attitudes; they see the wheelchair and not the person; they see the wheelchair first and not the potential of the person. The solution is education. Community employment schemes for a few hours a week are token positions, people need the opportunity to access full time employment.’

Sixteen years on and it seems to me that life as a wheelchair user is still a struggle. Kerry County Council has demonstrated that attitude, education, determination and a passion to make change to ensure that we live in an equal society is achievable. Organisations, both private and public, commercial and voluntary have a responsibility to be inclusive.

Enable Ireland


Why did I go to Pakistan?

On the 8th of October 2005 I was celebrating my father’s 80th birthday in Tralee County Kerry; news of an earthquake in Pakistan and India measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale was reported on television and radio stations that afternoon. At that stage we had little idea of the enormity of the devastation and loss of lives that people were facing. Thirty seconds of seismic activity resulted in the death of over 87,000 and 3.5 million displaced people. Media coverage was limited over the following weeks and only the radio appeals from John O’Shea, CEO of GOAL kept the issue alive. The Irish Government made a small initial contribution in the form of 5 million in aid and the Irish public quickly responded with donations to the tune of 3 million.

As the occasional article appeared highlighting the numbers of dead and described the destruction in almost biblical proportions it was hard to imagine why coverage of the event was so sparse. Earlier in the year the Irish public empathised with the Tsunami tragedy because many had visited Sri Lanka for their annual holiday, whilst few people in Ireland go to Pakistan for a break, white Europeans were not caught up in the travesty of the earthquake and our links with Pakistan, its people and its culture seem limited at best.

It had been ten years since I felt the need to leave Ireland and document a situation that seemed to need highlighting, but by the end of November, with a Himalayan winter fast approaching in Pakistan, I felt that I had to go and bring back photographs that might tell the story and encourage people in Ireland to go the extra mile with contributions in the New Year.

My first telephone call was to John O’Shea; when I suggested that I document what his agency was doing in Pakistan in inimitable fashion he replied, ‘Well I hope you don’t need a baby sitter, just bring a sleeping bag.’ It was 40 days after the earthquake when I visited Toheed Ahmad, the Ambassador to Pakistan based in Dublin: his major concern was the 16,000 schools that had been destroyed and the 200 million tons of rubble that needed to be cleared in order to get supplies to families living in remote villages.

Farrukh Seyer Butt, Consultant Plastic Surgeon at Cork Regional Hospital was busy mobilising containers of supplies when I met him to get contacts and information about the areas I planned to visit. His colleague Dr. Khurshid Bazmi had just returned from Balakot where he had experienced the devastation at first hand having lost twenty members of his family; he was exhausted and traumatised by the whole experience but was mobilising the Pakistani medical profession working in Ireland. Doctors in Cork, Kerry, and Limerick were eager to help me and to ensure that I would have access to people and areas that would bring a greater understanding to the tragedy that was unfolding.

What was the experience like?

Humbling. In Northern Pakistan I travelled by UN helicopters, trucks and tractors on the devastated roads along mountainsides chalked white by landslides to get to remote villages and meet people whose lives have been decimated by the earthquake. All the people I met had lost at least one family member. Some young people and children now have no family members left. In Balakot I stood on the flattened site of what was a school where 600 children were killed. I spoke to and photographed women who are now paralysed in a country that has no social system for people with disabilities. I met teams of Doctors who have worked tirelessly. It was so cold. Families were living in tents that were fit for a summer camping trip with just blankets to cover them and one or two simple cooking pots. Children were coughing and shivering in the cold and yet were attending makeshift classes to continue their education and help them get through the trauma I could see in their eyes. Was it difficult to photograph? No, because people wanted their story told and I felt that I had a responsibility to bring that story to the Irish public so that they could better understand what the winter months will be like for the Pakistani people who in the face of such adversity welcomed me into their tents and could still smile and say, ‘Inshalla’ – with the will of God.


I arrived in Islamabad and started to document the situation there. Margala Tower in in the center of the city was now a shell of a building that had 38 apartments and 150 residents of which 77 were killed and 25 hospitalised; against a blue sky it had a ghostly feel; the sound of a hammer echoed as a resident tried to reclaim a window frame on the third floor.

The women’s ward of Shifa International Hospital was buzzing with the sound of relatives visiting and attending to women of all ages lying prone and unable to care for themselves. A beautiful young woman wrote in my notebook while I photographed her, ‘My name is Sofia, I am reading for a B.A. My subjects are Economics and English; I belong to Bagh, Azad, Kashmir, I have a fracture in the cervical lumbar region.’ Her friends giggled as they painted a decoration on my hand with Mehndi. The ward was a catalogue of pelvic fractures, paralysis and amputations. At that stage I became aware of the reality of the earthquake and the future for these young women some as paraplegics with young families to care for. There were no disability support services to access and it was probable that over time they would be displaced in their husband’s affections, husbands would remarry and start a new family and his disabled wife and children would be abandoned.

Many of the women were from Muzaffarabad and Balakot the areas nearest the epicentre of the earthquake. Many said, ‘the house fell on me,’ and some lay under the rubble for days where their injuries steadily worsened and gangrene set in. These women were airlifted perhaps 25 days later to Islamabad where some endured two operations and were waiting for prosthesis to be fitted. Dr. Aamer Nabi and his team performed 360 operations, 50% of which were major pelvic and long bone fractures. 30% of the operations were on children. Many of the operations needed to be redone as the bones were malunited or stumps were infected. ‘Our most urgent need is to access expertise in the area of the design of prosthetics; we are currently making crude limbs. We need rehabilitation services to be set up; we desperately need social workers and volunteers; we urgently need to look at how best to deal with post-traumatic stress for all those involved and provide the necessary psychological services.’

Dr Nabi suggested that I visit Dr. Bangash who was running his own tent village in Islamabad at the Quaid-E-Azam International Hospital. When the earthquake happened he decided to take personal action with his team of medical staff. ‘The 8th of October was a chaos situation and very scary.’ He started sending trucks to Muzaffarabad and brought back 300 people from the most affected areas to treat their injuries, arrange for complicated surgeries and to help with their recuperation. Bangesh’s main concern was that the debris be moved as soon as possible; ‘People want to go back home to their land, animals and start rebuilding their houses. The education of their children is suffering and there is emotional trauma.’ Dr Bangash showed me round the tent village where he had provided refuge and security for a large number of orphaned children, older members of the community, families and people with disabilities. Bangash was brought up in Muzaffarabad, his family home has been destroyed with just one room left standing; for him the whole experience had been a very emotional one.

The Capital Development Authority in Islamabad set up a camp that had been functioning since the 22nd October for over 9,000 people, 97% of whom are from Kashmir. The camp was sited on grounds owned by the National University and donors and NGO’s supported the project that provided tents, food, education, community development, health care and immunisation for children. Malik Aulya Khan, the Director of Urban Environment, was organising from the inside of a large tent surrounded by white boards detailing the organisation of eight major sectors of the camp. ‘We have established 5 schools; there are 300 toilets, 150 showers and common kitchen areas. We are helping people to get back to their home place but they need winterised equipment, bedding, winter clothing and shelter.’ Children in the camp were playing on swings, food was being prepared in a communal kitchen as no stoves are used in tents to prevent fires. Women found these arrangements hard as food and water was cold by the time they brought it to their tent, but the only real complaints were of the cold; at night and early morning it was freezing and thin tents and a couple of blankets did not keep out the cold.

Anne Marie O’Donoghue, the Country Director for GOAL and her team in Bagh and Dhirkot had a ‘can do’ attitude and were focused on urgently providing shelter for the poorest of the poor in rural areas, those people who lived in traditional mud built homes who had no materials to recycle. GOAL concentrated on supporting those people who were the most vulnerable; widows, the elderly and the disabled. In a race against the weather enough corrugated iron was being transported to remote villages to enable 7,500 families to build a winter shelter.

A United Nations helicopter flight took 16 passengers to Bagh among those were; Matt Hollingsworth, Deputy Head of Logistics for the World Food Programme who had worked with the WFP for five years, ‘This is the biggest heli programme I have been involved with. It has been a real success and we will be using helis throughout the winter.’ Els Van Poppel worked for the Netherlands Army and was one of 100 personnel working in a field hospital in Bagh. Her job was to coordinate patient logistics and medical supplies liaising with the local Army forces, plans were to construct a hospital that would be operational for the next 5 years and to withdraw from the area in January 2006.

I looked out of the window and for the first time I saw the landscape and the challenges in getting practical help to people who were living in such remote areas with houses perched on the side of hills and tracks zig zagging up mountain sides. Flying over tent villages it was difficult from a height to see the devastation as roofs were flat on the ground.

Outside the GOAL office in Bagh 200 trucks fully loaded stream past the office at 7.00am headed towards mountain villages. There was a heavy frost and people on an unofficial campsite down by the river were washing and collecting water at the river’s edge. Donna Smith, the GOAL Team Leader, recruited teachers and third level students from the local community, all of whom have lost family and were eager to help share their local knowledge with GOAL in their efforts to identify the communities and families most in need.

I met Donna in the mountain village of Tangyat where she was assessing the needs of families in three areas. After a torturous zig zag drive we parked and start to walk a small mountain track. I met two women collecting water at a small spring, the younger woman showed me a group photograph and points to her two sons who died in the earthquake. As we talked a mother and her small son who carries their belongings in a piece of material greet the two women, they have left their home and make their way down to Bagh; they are vulnerable and the boy has become the head of the household.

The village of Tangyat is at the top of a hill; a family community sat around Donna to discuss their needs; one woman lay outside on a bed, her leg had an external fixator. A man sat with a foot injury, his crutches resting on his chair, a bullock grazed in the midst of the group, the sun was bright but a chill was in the air.

Leaving the families we ascended to Faisel where an extended family had been domiciled for 200 years. Their homes had been destroyed; they had lost family members and yet they were at pains to make us welcome with tea and biscuits.

On the spot
Three children are crouched down at the riverside in the small town of Bagh in Pakistan administered Kashmir; it is seven o’clock in the morning, the ground is frozen, they are just wearing summer clothes and the youngest boy is shivering and wheezing with what may be the onset of an acute respiratory infection. Their parents, Yameema and Ibrahim are living in an unofficial campsite in the hopes that they may get help from the NGOs in town. They have moved down from a mountain village where their home was decimated by the earthquake on the 8th of October. There are seven of them living in a tent that just has a few blankets on the floor and a cooking pot. Yameema has an artificial leg and is finding it difficult to crouch down to cook: Ibrahim’s face is pinched from the cold and strained with worry. It is hard to imagine how this family will survive the harsh Himalayan winter under such circumstances.

Over three million people have been displaced and are living on the sides of mountains by the ruins of their homes, in managed tent villages or are still in hospital being treated for serious hip, spinal and long bone fractures which have left them either paralysed as a result of roofs falling on them or with amputations as they were left trapped in ruins for days before being airlifted to hospital for treatment. Many of the casualties are women and children; they now face an uncertain future as there are no support services for people with disabilities in Pakistan.

Young girls dressed in salwar kameez blue uniform walk past the river on their way to The Government Girls High School in Bagh. Their school is in ruins; 200 of the 800 students died on the 8th of October, their satchels and copy books still lying poignantly in the rubble. Open air classes are taking place where the school used to be; the noise of workmen breaking concrete fills the air while lessons in English, History and Maths take place. Teachers and 300 children are dealing with the effects of post traumatic stress and focusing on learning is helping to give life some semblance of normality. Throughout Bagh are signs posted that read ‘Education is Rehabilitation,’ but some children are too proud to attend school without their uniform or books or are injured and unable to get transport from outlying villages. Two lines of students crouch down as they tackle a maths problem; from this year group alone, 75 children were killed in the earthquake.

In the mountain village of Mariola, Simon Roughneen, of GOAL Ireland, is waiting with a group of village elders in anticipation of the sound of tractors and trailers. The Massey Ferguson tractors climb steeply by switchbacks on a narrow boulder strewn road in order to deliver tents and blankets on behalf of GOAL who have based themselves in Bagh. Simon feels that, ‘The onus is on relief agencies to get the shelter materials and food to people at altitude in advance of the snow coming, as roads will become impassable. The UN can only fly helicopters – vital once roads are closed – until mid-January because the money just isn’t there. Thankfully the winter snows have held off for now but the Pakistani Met Office predict that this years’ winter will be more severe than usual; quite a statement given that areas above 5000 feet receive at least 6 feet of snow and night time temperatures of minus 15 degrees. The danger is that if people are not sheltered properly, they will move en masse to uncontrolled camps, with huge health-sanitation and social issues which an already under funded and overstretched relief effort would be hard-pressed to cope with.’

Muzaffarabad and Balakot were the towns nearest to the epicenter of the earthquake that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. Balakot is filled with dust and diggers; all the buildings are flattened with little indication of what stood in the place of all the concrete, the metal ornamentation from the top of the mosque fallen askew in the rubble. The surrounding hillsides are etched white where landslides have carved a treacherous path. Next to the site of what was the Royal Hotel a teenager stands by a grave that holds seven members of his family; plastic roses and bricks mark their resting place, he is stoical in the face of such tragedy.

Dr. Abdul Aziz Awan, Chairperson of the Abbottonians Medical Association was one of the first people to make his way to Balakot on the 8th of October. He had the agonizing experience of watching his younger brother die unable to rescue him from the crushing roof that trapped him. Government estimates are that 73,000 people died; Dr Awan said, ‘We could have saved so many more people had we been more prepared.’ The harsh learning from the experience has resulted in the formation of the Disaster Management Centre in Abbottabad, and fundraising for a mobile unit that is equipped to deal on the spot with casualties and plans for a fully stocked warehouse of medical supplies and a 60 bed trauma center.

Balakot has seen a joyous occasion in the past week, a wedding in the Pattan tent village just outside the town, it is a sign that life is continuing and that even in such extreme situations faith, love and hope are ever present. The Pattan Development Organisation has been working intensively with riverine communities since the flood disaster of 1992 promoting gender equality for women. Experience has shown that women are most severely impacted as the result of any natural disaster; victims are usually poor and within this group women and children are the most vulnerable. Sarwar Bari, National Coordinator of the project sees the current situation as a very big challenge and is concerned that the international response to the earthquake may create a ‘recipient mentality.’ He feels that, ‘there is a flood of external agencies, there is a lot of sharing but also a lot of duplication, we need to working at a grass roots level. Everyone is busy doing something but there has not been much time for reflection. We have to ensure that we are not creating vulnerability, making people dependant. People need to be actively involved in the reconstruction work. It is vital that women have an active part in the decision making at village level.’ Bari’s organization has certainly pushed the boundaries of gender equality; in a society that views a woman’s role to be in the home they have generated housing projects promoting joint property ownership for women that brings women respect and authority in their home and in the community.

A young woman lies on a bed outside a tent surrounded by her mother, husband and small son; Dr Faisel Saleem looks at her x-ray that shows her spine to be inoperable, she is paralysed and her arm has a jagged skin graft. It is probable that her husband will wait until they get compensation from the government for her injury and loss of home, he will then remarry and start another family and this wife and child will be cast aside. The challenges are enormous and it is evident that the vulnerable face an uncertain if not dire future if they get through the coming winter.



Sala Hantle – Farewell

When my father started his lonely and confusing journey down the unrelenting  path of Alzheimer’s disease, his daily refrain was to ask me:  Are you travelling? I know where his worry came from; I’ve been travelling for most of my life.

Are you travelling?

Not today Dad.

I’m exploring all those journeys in my mind; looking at the images I’ve created, questioning their relevance and if I’ve made any difference through my documentary photography.

What does this legacy of images actually represent for me and for others. How did they come into being, when does an issue or a country become so important that I‘ve had to travel to that place. What‘s the motivation; has my work helped the people I‘ve photographed, have the photographs affected people, and as a result, have those people taken action.

Travelling to Lesotho takes time. Fly from Cork to London – wait, search for some worthwhile reading material. The flight to Johannesburg is long enough to plan the days ahead, visualise the people and the projects I need  to document, the images I want to make, long enough to watch three movies, long enough to wish I could sleep like everyone else on the flight. After the immigration queue that zig zags with passegers from six simultaneously arriving flights, I watch the luggage revolve, bump and fall from the carosel and realise that mine is probably in Paris and won‘t make it to Lesotho yet again.

What follows is a mind numbing drive, on a seemingly endless straight road through South Africa; hour after hour, field after lush field of crops stretching out for miles on either side of the road. I‘m squashed between luggage and men on their way back from the mines. Women wear Basotho blankets and cradle sleeping children; I mop my face, it‘s dripping with sweat. We stop ocassionally, traders press up against the bus windows selling hot mealies, passengers take the opportunity to stretch their numb legs, relieve themselves and seek water. The music of Sesotho Sounds blasts out of the bus speakers keeping the driver focused. A few miles further on the minivan bumps onto the side of the road, a tyre is flat, we wait for another bus to bring a replacement, finally we are loaded onto that bus; the speakers are louder in this one.

Are you travelling?

No Dad I’m at home today.

Finally, the landscape starts to change, mountains appear on the horizon cutting into a cerulean sky. I just want to be in Lesotho, be there, arrive. At last we make a right turn, the first turn of any kind in all that distance, I calculate the miles and the time it will take to arrive into Ficksburg the border town where I can cross into Maputsoe. I send a text. ‘I am waiting‘ comes the reply.

In  December this small landlocked country is very hot for an Irish woman. In February the longed for rain arrows down and drains can’t contain the flow of water. If there‘s a drought the crops are stunted and lightening storms trace the night sky accompanied by cracks of thunder, the sound of which is terrifying. In June the mountains are covered in snow and children make their way to school when the temperature is minus twelve. Names are important in Lesotho and if, as a guest, you‘re awarded a name, you can feel honoured and accepted. When I first visted, there had been a drought; I was staying in St Luke’s Mission and on my arrival it rained and thus I was given my name, ‘Mé Pula. Pula is Sotho for rain. It‘s what the country wishes for, Peace, Rain and Prosperity ‘Khotso, Pula, Nala‘. That year the longed for rain arrived, Lesotho saw the heaviest rainfall in nearly two decades and it destroyed more than a third of the crops in the ground. Years of drought have hardened the soil  and dongas, deep gullies, fracture the landscape; it’s a potent image, families in Lesotho are fractured, eroded by AIDS.

‘I’m not a well man‘.

It’s said in the spirit of fun with a wry grin, he’s acting, takes the stance of an aged man bent over from the waist, to get some sympathy, some laughter and a hug. For an eighty eight year old he’s pretty healthy. His organs are wearing out, but he sleeps and eats well and loves to laugh; he just can’t remember new information.

I’ve travelled to the ‘Mountain Kingdom‘ on nineteen different occasions, on each trip I‘ve documented people who are sick; women, children and men who are living with AIDS. Spent time in homes where people had no food and were too ill to grow crops of any kind, too weak to visit a clinic and get the drugs they needed to keep them alive. Sat in rondavels where children cared for their dying parent. Listened to men injured in the South African mines, who feel disempowered because they can no longer earn a living and support their families. Talked to children whose responsibility it now is to care for their siblings since their parents are no longer alive. But that’s not the complete picture.

Time in Lesotho has given me an understanding of what community means: family is at the heart of Basotho culture. I’ve learned about dignity in the face of great challenge, and as a result of my experiences, the people I’ve met, listened to and learned from, I’ve started to care for my own family.

Are you travelling?

Just to Blackwater.

Where’s that place?

Between Kenmare and Sneem.

We pull into the the wide expanse of the bus arrivals area, minibuses are spilling out passengers, luggage and parcels. I see Ntate Mankoe waiting at the Jeep, it‘s so good to see him. He’s wearing a Kerry jersey to welcome me.

Lumela ‘Mé Eileen how was your journey?

Long, Ntate, long. How is your family?

They are well.

The word Ntate, meaning father, is a form of respect; I’ve known Ntate Mankoe for over five years and even though we‘re the same age I wouldn‘t consider calling him by his christian name, Tarcisius. He‘s a trusted community leader, a great teacher and guide to Basotho culture; infinitely patient with my plodding efforts to learn basic Sotho greetings that are the warp and weft of friendship. He’s managing operations for an Irish nongovernmental agency, focusing on food security and enterprise.

Crossing the border into Lesotho is a rite of passage, I can’t believe I’ve arrived; but before the hub bub of Maputsoe is the ritual of the border crossing, lines of people waiting to get their passport stamped; exiting South Africa they  cross the bridge between the two countries, burdened with their luggage, walking above and over the Caledon River to arrive at another border post in Lesotho. Some, without a passport or temporary documentation, leave it until night and swim across the river in the shadow of the bridge; the other side holds the hope of work. It’s a political boundary and more than that it’s a psychological road that leads from the memory of apartheid into a place that is fiercely independent. Somehow the Lesotho check point seems friendlier, people smile in recognition and my fatigue evaporates.

When I first travelled around Lesotho in April 2006 I stayed in a number of inns, the first being Lancer’s in the capital city Maseru. In the dining room of the hotel the walls were hung with paintings signed with the name Meshu. As I went from place to place photographing I saw more and more of Meshu’s striking images of the human figure. Having circled the country I returned to Maseru determined to track down the artist. Our first meeting was in the Basotho Hat where some of his drawings were being displayed. He arrived with a rolled up painting under his arm.

I’m not a young man you know

You look brilliant Dad

At that time Meshu was eighty one years of age, looked an energetic sixty years and was still producing work in his studio every day with the hope of selling a piece of art to buy bread and  feed his grandchildren. It was one of the most important meetings that I was to have in Lesotho, the beginning of a long conversation. We walked to Lancer’s Inn and sat down to talk surrounded by his paintings.

I was a peripatetic scholar and learned as I was trotting around the world. My work was influenced by the African expressionists. People have said that we have a distortionist approach, but for us it is reality and how we see ourselves. I have arrived at a point, now I can express my feelings through the human figure.

Our conversation was interrupted, as it would be on many occasions, and Meshu was whisked away to meet with the Prime Minister. Collectors of Meshu’s work live in Africa, Europe and America; he is valued in Lesotho for his life experience and the advice he can give as much as for his artwork. A political advisor to the Prime Minister and recipient of a lifetime award from the King he is highly regarded yet still lives on the edge of poverty as an artist. Many of his peers have moved to South Africa or Europe to further their artistic careers, Meshu has taken the hard road but for him the only road.

We are sitting under an intriguing painting; there is a snake in evidence.

I’m a humanist; the boundaries between faiths is so thin. I grew up in in the remote village of Qeme near a big mountain that seperates it from Maseru. The people are very traditional. The medicine man may hunt for snakes and the herd boys look after the cattle; you watch the tall grass and if it shakes continuously you know that a snake is there, it shakes in a pattern. That information has always lived with me. In 1994 I drew a snake, I was trying to recollect the days when I was a herd boy; we were approached by the medicine man in the village and we were asked to hunt for snakes and bring them back to him. I just remembered those days and that‘s the story behind this symbol against disease, the war against disease. The medicine man used the snake and used his spear to help those who suffered.

This morning I telephoned Meshu to let him know that I am writing about him and that I have a book of poetry for him by a Mosotho who lives in Paris, the front cover is one of his paintings‚Woman in a Moment of Puff.

How are you Meshu?

Trying to keep above the water level. I’m not sinking.

It’s good to hear his voice, strong and full of vitality and humour. On my next trip to Lesotho I am in Meshu’s small studio to talk, photograph and pick up a charcoal drawing of a miner that he has created for me. Mining has become one of the dominant symbols that floats through all the stories that I see and hear. The drawing is in front of me on my wall in Bantry as I write and remember.

A culture comes in and becomes an avalanche. When I left the village I went to the mines in South Africa to get cash. Whilst I was there I was lucky, the management of the mines promoted me to a clerk. It was an experience I started questioning. We went to the depths of the earth. It was traumatic; the first two weeks my sleep was different. They gave us good food, things we did not have in the village. Monthly payment. Mining culture; I found myself at odds with it even though it was enhancing my life – a conflict of interest.

Ultimately I started rejecting the mining culture and tried to politicise against dehumanising, deculturalising, – no soul, no spirit. What I experienced in the mines makes me more convinced against a mining culture.

When we leave our communities the communities are not balanced; its destabilising to a family, the family is not whole.

 We used to leave the compound and go and look for women; syphillis and ghonnorea was an everyday thing in the mines. No protected sex, people dying, it was hazardous.When they began the men were strong and healthy, at the end of the contract dilapidated. A strong man engaging in a destructive situation – victim of a power far beyond his understanding. Go into a  location and please the girls. Weekend – money and girls, Monday –  disease and the doctor. I want to see freedom from self enslavement. The culture of the mines is destructive and is enslavement.

I remember my mother. I asked her, ‘Where is my father?‘ She said to me, ‘He is coming.‘ That answer has always intrigued me. Eventually he used to come. The longing for him I am unable to describe. The one who you know is coming but is yet to arrive.

Perhaps this explains the many images that Meshu has created of the mother and child, the family, the lone woman, women cooking and women grieving.

When my father left Clonakilty he went to work in the mines in Doncaster

Do you remember when you were in the mines Dad?

I used to have all my water finished before we got to the bottom of the pit. You’d have to keep your lunch in a tin otherwise the mice would get to it.

I made my last trip to Lesotho in 2010. It was the final trip because it was clear that my parents needed help and within a short space of time I moved from Kerry to Bantry in south west Cork. And I was lucky, I had a further four years to enjoy my Dad and learn from him.

Looking through my archive of Lesotho photographs in 2015 it is evident how important the images are to me. I can visualise the situation in which each one was taken, the conversations with people whose lives and health was so challenged and the fortitude with which they faced extreme poverty. The photographs were seen by over 50,000 students in Irish universities in public exhibitions. I had the opportunity to present lectures, to inform,  and also to encourage young people to volunteer their time in Lesotho to learn from Basotho about true community develpment.

Eileen O‘Leary


Creative Minds

During 2016 I will be photographing people in south west Cork who are actively engaged in creating art. I’m looking forward to spending time with artists, musicians, singers, dancers, sculptors, writers, poets, actors, dramatists and photographers whose lives are full of passion for their chosen art form. I’ll be introducing you to people that I admire, teachers and community workers who use their art to engage with people to inspire, encourage and build confidence.

I’m fortunate to live in an area that is truly a hot bed of creativity. I’ll be bringing you images together with the words of each artist; what motivates them, how do they work best and what is the environment in which they produce their work, be it; on the street, in a studio, on a stage, in front of the fire, out in the garden, on the beach or up a remote mountain path.

In 2014 I had the opportunity to photograph musicians in rehearsal for the Bantry Chamber Music Festival, the work, that you see across the page, is what sparked the idea for the ‘Creative Minds’ project.

Projects like this have a life of their own, they are of course very personal and I am starting with the people that I meet on a regular basis through my own love of art in all its forms. Who knows where the project will take me, it is the start of a documentation that feels important to my development as a photographer, I hope you enjoy the results.

February 2016

Creative Minds

How To Contact Me

If you have any questions regarding my work or would like to arrange for me to come and present to your community group, please do not hesitate to contact me at eileen@eileenoleary.com

Mobile: (353) 087 9213084

Thank you,

Eileen O’Leary

“I wish to thank Ardent Media Design of Byfield Massachusetts for their web design expertise and Jan Sutton for her production assistance. I would also like to express my gratitude to Hetty Walsh for her mastery in black and white printing”.

All images and text copyright ©2016 Eileen O’Leary

Eileen O'Leary

On location in County Cork

Eileen on location