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Declan O’Neill is a professional photographer who lives in the South Island, New Zealand. He travels extensively capturing the beauty of New Zealand’s extraordinary landscape. The photographs which accompany this article are part of a series entitled ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ which is dedicated to the memory of his sister, Ann, who died from Multiple Systems Atrophy.
When you ask people what possessions they would rescue from their burning house, one of the most frequent answers is the photograph album or a computer with their digital images. When in panic mode it’s interesting that we would probably grab photos rather than valuable jewelry. This impulse to save our recorded memories is a powerful force which tells us much about the role of photography in our lives and our constant desire to distil our most precious moments into images.
We preserve the important events and people in our lives. The ceremonies of birth and birthdays, marriages and anniversaries, holidays and new houses are all recorded because they matter. Photographs are our personal story, a timeline of our lives filled with faces and places that we love. They are our story, which we can share with others. The hundreds of images come together to form a narrative of our lives.
Once I remember sitting in a train as it passed a playground where children were standing to attention for the annual school photograph. Across the front row sat the teachers and behind them, hundreds of children neatly preened and uniformed. For the briefest second the entire assembly was motionless. We were passing just as the photographer clicked the shutter. Suddenly, as if in slow motion, the huge group scattered as children escaped their enforced immobility. The neat rows dissolved and broke into individuals who were now kicking footballs or huddled in friendship groups. None of those children realised that the photograph was probably going to outlive them. A couple of generations later it might surface among old papers in an attic and someone would search for granddad among the fresh young faces. Photographs matter because they freeze moments of our lives which pass unremarkably and which seem to have little importance to us at the time. The significance, however, may be for others who search for the person we once were or the places we once knew. They can be small pieces of a jigsaw that complete the larger picture of our lives.
Images are much more than a simple record. Photography speaks to the best and most generous part of our human nature – the desire to share what we find beautiful and interesting with others. You only have to look at Flickr and a multitude of photo sharing sites to see this impulse at work. Millions of people sharing their personal, passionate and sometimes quirky take on the world around them. Our images can involve a world of strangers in our life. How powerful is that?
Photography allows us to express ourselves through an art form. We notice a beautiful landscape or an old man’s lined face and we want to capture it. Each of us will have a different reason to do so but, essentially, we want to create something. However humdrum our nine-to-five lives may be, the creation of an image makes us an artist. It feels good.
Our images can express joy and sorrow, wonder and sympathy. Every human emotion can find a place in photography. For many years I never valued my photographs of overcast landscape because I believed that there was no beauty in a land with muted colours and a leaden sky. I wanted the land to be alive with colour and vibrancy. However, lack of colour in a landscape makes you search for other things that often go unremarked in bright sunlight. It could be a symmetry of hills or a tree standing out from a forest of thousands. I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life and photography gave me a language to express feelings for which I can find no words. We have a miserably poor vocabulary for mental illness and photography has allowed me to develop a visual language for some of the most difficult emotions.
Photographs can grab our attention and speak directly to our emotions. Nick Ut’s photograph of a crying Vietnamese girl whose clothes have been burnt away by napalm embodies the power of a single image. At a more subtle level, we can learn lessons about a whole range of emotions. Grief has the power to wash away the luminance and chrominance of our lives. There is no magic way to restore them at will. We have to be patient. But while waiting we can search for the shapes and patterns that are still there in the greyness. They will lead us back to colour eventually. At moments of great sorrow in my life I have used images to express that hope of returning colour.
Photography, at its best, is a powerful language which speaks to our emotions. It allows us to tell our story and show others our framing of the world around us.
Declan O’Neill is a professional photographer living in the South Island of New Zealand.
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