I always wanted this book, Eyewitness: Four Decades of Northern Life, by Brendan Murphy, but the original cover price of £30 was a little steep for me. Thankfully, the Bookshop at Queen’s has it discounted to £8. I only had to wait 6 years.
It is a brilliant book. Murphy’s photographs may not be the polished style of trained photo-journalists — the shots you see in AP and AFP — but they are blessed with sincerity and honesty.
As Murphy admits himself, when he started photography he missed many shots, taking time to learn what he had to do. It is worth reading Seamus Kelters’ text, as it is a truly interesting discovery of Murphy’s thinking behind the camera lens.
Murphy’s accounts reveal truths that make sense for those who live in Northern Ireland, but perhaps others find peculiar.
For example, he explains how the boxing arena is “one of the few truly politically correct places”:
“Nationalist and Unionists, loyalists and republicans, police even, all crush in side by side. Any animosity is left at the door. The atmosphere is no less charged for that … Religion doesn’t matter. All that’s important is a man’s ability.”
And there’s the cross-community protection among fellow photographers:
“Strangers would expect Catholic and Protestant photographers to be at each other’s throats. That was never the case. Nothing was further from reality. Protestant photographers have told me to stick close to them when we’ve been in fiercely loyalist areas. I’ve returned the favour. If they have faults and frailties, local press photographers also have great strength and integrity.”
The book’s title is apt: this is a journey of one man’s firsthand account of what he saw and recorded on film. So much has changed over 40 years — technically with cameras and historically with Northern Ireland politics — but Murphy has remained true to his community-oriented background.
This is demonstrated in Murphy’s coverage of sectarian attacks:
“Few bombing or shootings ever happened in middle-class areas … they usually wouldn’t want the attack highlighted. They would want to get on with their lives. Working class areas are different. Friends and family mostly live in the same area. The entire community was in the same boat. They would insist what had happened could not be swept away with the broken glass.”
Indeed, the last photograph in the book is an otherwise unremarkable photo of a Belfast corner shop, taken in 1974. But then comes the accompanying description: “The corner shop and bar were the hub of a community … More social work went on in these places than a host of government agencies. They were lost to redevelopment and supermarkets. With them went a way of life.”
Thankfully, Brendan Murphy remains a freelance photographer, and his new photographs regularly appear in the Irish News.