In conversation with Tom McGahan
I have the same name as my father, “but he’s not named after me” he would say in his thick County Tyrone accent.
After a brief illness, my father gently passed away on the 21st October 2017. In the immediate aftermath of his death I embarked on this series of images to try, in some way, to record the process of grief and preserve feelings and emotions that arose.
My father spent his later years in the home where he was born in the north of Ireland. It is a place that is steeped in tradition and is highly polarised due to the division between the two main communities of Nationalists and Unionists. He was the youngest of a family of six boys and one girl, most of whom emigrated to Canada, New Zealand and England.
It was almost a given that my father would have the traditional Irish wake. Dad was brought home to the humble farmhouse where he was born seventy-six years ago, his body laid out with the casket opened and for two days friends, relatives, and clergy came to pay their respects, sit, drink gallons of tea and tell stories. It was a very social gathering with long-lost relatives and many new faces that would have been part of my father’s life.
There was a steady flow of those who came to pay their respects to the man who they called “Father”, “Grandfather”, “Brother”, “Uncle”, “Cousin”, “Friend”… Even in the whirlwind of events and the midst of grief and exhaustion, it felt a very natural process. It brings death right up close, and in this it seems to diminish the ultimate fear of death and dying.
In Irish tradition, when the body was taken from the house, Keeners would sing a lament over the body. This tradition died out in the mid-twentieth century.
Grief is so often suppressed in our Western culture, in our striving for happiness does death and the sadness that follow encroach on our own sense of mortality so much that it has to be pushed to one side
“Our grief now is too contained. We rely on taking antidepressants. We go to a grief counsellor but these people are, in a way, a substitute for letting it all out, having a good scream, coming from the feet up, a good cry, a good purging.” (Mourning the loss of the keening tradition in Ireland)
Different cultures have their own ways of dealing with death. “In not too distant Tanzania, the burial traditions of the Nyakyusa people initially focus on wailing but then include feasts. They also require that participants dance and flirt at the funeral, confronting death with an affirmation of life.” (What ancient cultures teach us about grief, mourning and continuity of life)
The process of grieving is said to come in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages never come in order, sometimes in reverse and sometimes all at once; but also within these are the moments of fond memories and deep love that seem to become stronger and take a deep seat within us.
These images were recorded during the first year after my father’s passing using a large format camera, and only one exposure was made at each of the locations. The process was both arduous and cathartic, wanting to bring it up close – almost like at “the wake”, to expose both the landscape that I found myself in and the emotions that arose during that first year after my father’s death. Words alone cannot express the emotions that arise from grief.
This collection of images is my Keen to my father.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Maldon in Essex, UK. I had always loved to draw and paint, and first discovered photography at fifteen. I am not formally trained as a photographer – I have worked in the industry on and off since leaving school at sixteen.
My first job was a youth training scheme placement at a local photography shop. In my twenties I worked on cruise ships as a photographer; it was a great way to see the world. The photography was very formulaic as you would expect, but I still learnt a lot and met some wonderful people, some of whom I am still in contact with.
I have now been working as a freelancer for fifteen years, and have worked on many projects from food to fashion. Eight years ago I decided to make my personal projects my primary focus and have been steadily building a body of work with the main focus being on our perception of places, objects, and the interconnectedness of all things.
Are you interested in any specific genre of art or photography?
I wouldn’t say that there is a particular genre of art or photography that interests me most. I find inspiration in all of the arts. If I was to have any personal favourites in photography, photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall, Alec Soth and William Eggleston come to mind.
While working on the project, were there any moments that stand out to you now?
Looking back, I would say the moment that stood out the most was on a trip to Ireland that I had planned to do with my dad. Sadly he contracted pneumonia and passed before we could go, but I went anyway.
During the trip I was walking in the McGillacuddy Reeks – Ireland’s highest mountain range – and I had ventured off the main trail looking for a shot. I was scrambling up over a ridge when I saw a snow white hare. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then ran off. Not long after, the snow started to come down heavily and I knew was time to head back down.
My dad had an affinity with hares; he used to sit and watch them in the fields. In Irish folklore, the hare is admired for strength, speed and is noted for being active at night and associated with the moon. They were seen as mysterious and magical, thought of as an animal to be treated with caution; that was dad in a nutshell.
How did your understanding and feelings towards the idea of grief change before and after the making of the series, if at all?
That’s a great question. I have dealt with grief a number of times in my adult life before my father’s death. In the year before dad’s passing, I lost a great friend to suicide and, a month after, an aunt who had been a big part of my childhood passed away. So I understood already the process and how the emotions that surround it can arise at any given moment.
The main thing that I would say is that you have to let it in. What we resist persists. It can also be a positive force in our lives, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Grief, after all, is an expression of love.
This recent article noted that our current predicament, the global pandemic and subsequent lockdown, has caused us to collectively feel grief – many without realising or understanding what the feeling is. Is this something you have noticed, whether within yourself or others around you? Do you also find yourself making work now as a way to process?
Yes, absolutely. I feel a collective grief all around us, and strangely the place that I have noticed it mostly is at the supermarket. The collective anxiety feels very palpable, and the mood feels very somber – not unlike the feeling at a funeral.
We have all lost something. Whether it be our freedom that we value so much, loss of jobs and work, and some will have lost loved ones. In this collective grief, there is also an understanding that we are in this together and in this we have empathy for each other.
In our fast-paced world, we often don’t have the time nor the headspace to consider how others who aren’t in our immediate circle of friends and family are feeling. This current situation is bringing up all sorts of emotions that we may not have experienced before which can be extremely hard to deal with. My hope is that the majority will use this time to consider how we conduct our lives and how we treat our fellow human beings.
I use my photography practice generally as a way of processing thought and emotions. At the moment, I have been working on a project that deals with solitude, and the lockdown has thrown up new ideas around this theme which I have been exploring.
Recommend us something you’re currently watching, reading, and/or listening to.
I am reading The Transparency of Things by Rupert Spira, a series of contemplations which looks at the nature of experience. It really challenges the way we view our experience which is determined by our perception. I am currently listening to Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album Kiwanuka on repeat; it’s beautiful and soulful.
Finally, tell us about a photograph that has influenced you.
When I was fifteen, a friend of mine gave me a copy of U2’s Joshua Tree tour book. I found the images by Anton Corbijn so mesmerising, I studied them intensely. I loved to draw and paint, but after seeing his images stark images of the desert landscape I knew thats what I wanted to do with my life.