Niamh Smith | Issue Ten Interview

Cover Artist

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work

My name is Niamh and I am an Irish-born photographer based in Dublin. I picked up my first film camera when I was 17 years of age whilst studying Graphic Design, where I spent many evenings in the dark room learning and making mistakes. It was really the best way to learn. A few years, later digital photography became more accessible and I picked up my first DSLR. It was revolutionary for my practice. At the very start I was not great at articulating my ideas, but I knew there was something emotional and ritual about the way I felt and made images.

I really wanted to study photography on this level, so I decided to go back to University to study a Masters in Fine Art Photography at Belfast School of Art. It was here that I discovered that my image making was concerned with the storytelling of the unheralded moments of the everyday and that I was conceptualising photography as an act of prayer. For me, photography simulates a spiritual experience awakening moments of reflection and emotions.

I find people fascinating. I love people. I love their emotions and behaviours. It can have a really profound effect on me and an enriching experience for others (so I have been told). I think that’s why my work has always been concerned with the storytelling of the everyday life. Everyday life is beautiful, curiously beautiful.

At the very start of my own practice, there was an imprint of trauma – intergenerational trauma. I slowly discovered this was intimately connected to the people and places of Irish institutions and their manifestations. This led me to my current project - Institutions of Home.

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work?

In broad terms, the work is a reflection on multiple concerns and situations concerned with National Identity, Nationhood and Place Making. The pictures are very much about the human condition. Whether it be a person, place or a landscape manifestation they all include the life cycle thoughts of birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.

It is in no doubt a project of traumas, but also an identification of how wonderfully resilient and strong people can be in the familiarity of the ordinary. The ordinary inspires the emotion, affection and curiosity. This spirit in the normality, becomes a procession of contemplation, moving with this rhythm towards an interpretation of Irish histories and their manifestations.

What art do you most identify with? Any specific influences or research areas?

Oh wow! I am not sure where to start. I have done years of research when it comes to this particular project, everything from Irish histories, science, female sexuality, medical journals to artistic responses of the Holocaust and the Human Condition. Some historical photography artists that come to mind are the work of Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White of the Holocaust and Kim Haughton in the ongoing dialogue surrounding the legacy of child abuse in Ireland. As my work is an ongoing project that is ever evolving, I grow with the project and so does the research. At the moment I am especially interested in archival material. I have a growing collection of material that has been kindly shared with me over the past three years from people I collaborate with on the project.

At the start of this project my lecturer at the time, Ken Grant, kindly pointed me in the direction of Laia Abril. Her work had a profound effect on me. She navigates through complex themes and situations by producing photos, books, archival material, and installations to tell intimate stories of hidden realities. As I continue on this journey I continuously ask questions of myself. How do I photograph Trauma? How do I photograph something that is not physically in front of me, yet it has become so intimately personal. How can I express this emotional weight I feel in a way to offer something cathartic? These kind of continuous questions led me to works of Larry Sultan and in particular Pictures from Home and the work of Saul Leiter and his pioneered painterly approach to colour photography as a way to express emotion.

How would you describe your approach to photography/working process?

As I mentioned previously I conceptualise my photography as an act of prayer. I respond to these themes by approaching my work in a creative light, and, yet performative in some ways. It is with the hope that these constructed atmospheres that I engage with draw the viewer in to question the work. I collaborate, have notebooks and collect materials. Conversations and reflection is really important to the work. On a spiritual level, engaging with others guides my practice and taking images in places of meaning and historical value in response to these experiences becomes a meditative process, one that transcends.

Meaning the essence of the work is raw emotion. This emotion is what I try and harvest and nurture, as hard as that can be sometimes. The photographic medium allows me to enter into worlds and lives of people that I would never have known otherwise. New friendships are made, barriers are removed, and trust is built. I see the final work very much as a collaborative approach, it is created by me but also the people I engage with. It really is one of the most beautiful and wonderful things about my practice and photography in general.

Your work explores trauma, storytelling and unhearable moments, do you think artists have an obligation to address social issues? /What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society?

I think artists have a really significant role when it comes to social issues and with photography in particular. It is a significant responsibility of representation which speaks to the fundamentals of photography ethics. Photographs are a powerful tool, having the potential to influence what we do, where we do it and what we experience. It is a visual base for personal and social economic communication. Every artist plays a different yet necessary role in contributing to the development, and well-being of our society. That is a big responsibility, one that we should embrace. I believe it is an opportunity to create meaningful work on a platform that has the potential to engage and change social outcomes.

For example, my own work has become a layered composite of the political, the social and the personal. This wasn't my initial intention, but this is something that I am so mindful of as I work my way through. This is something I explored as part of my final dissertation. The objective to determine whether art of photography or art in general can create some form of acceptance and liberation. I believe that as artists, we should question representation in every picture we make and there are several ethical considerations like context, method and the intent that should be considered if we do want to make our medium a voice.

Are there any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?

I currently have work in the National Portrait Gallery in Dublin until January and then this will travel to Crawford Gallery in Cork until April/May time. There is a total of 7 series’ to be created in this ongoing work and includes varying numbers of images, from six to nine in each series. I have almost 4 series completed out of the 7. So I really want to try and resolve a few things with the remaining 3. In saying that, I think this project will be a life- time project. I really feel the work won’t ever feel complete to me. I don’t think it’s supposed to feel complete. The work is subtle and delicate much like its subjects and the images need thought and time to reflect this essence. I tend to pick up other projects and then come back to this one with another new perspective.

Something I am currently exploring is the tangibility of a book format for this work. The Photographic sequence in a book lends itself to the rhythm, of these images, one that has pace, but with reflective pauses. A book can be very intimate and with a strong considered layout the book would become a manifestation in itself. I think it would be an intimate and reflective way to navigate through the work picture by picture, line by line, as if reading through a prayer.


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