A window on our world: the street photographer who captured the lives of ordinary people

A window on our world: the street photographer who captured the lives of ordinary people

An elderly man wearing a black fedora sits in the front seat of a bus in Dublin sometime in the 1980s. You can see where he tried to clear the fogged window in front of him to get a look. But it smeared again. We know without seeing it that it’s dark outside. It’s dark enough inside too. Nevertheless, the man looks stoically into the fogged-up window.

Small children play on Cumberland Street after the weekend market. The street is littered with mountains of rubbish and discarded objects. Unsold armchairs and sofas were set on fire on the sidewalk and are now burning in a large pyre of black smoke. People walk by and ignore it. A woman balances a box labeled Pifco on a rickety stroller on her way home.

Dozens of turkeys hang neatly from the outside railings of a block of flats at the annual Turkey Christmas Market near Smithfield. It’s such an arresting and unusual sight, yet locals walk by as if it were mundane, not unlike a row of shirts hanging from a shop rail.

The term ‘street photographer’ comes closest to describing Tony O’Shea, the Kerry-born photographer whose work is the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Photo Museum Ireland.

Permission to use only with issuance
Permission to use only with issuance
Permission to use only with issuance

O’Shea is a humble man and his photography style is understated. He is a documentary photographer who captures moments of ordinary life as they happen. The photographs are not posed. They are all photographed in black and white. They focus on people on the fringes of society: urban poverty, travellers, working-class youth culture. He keeps returning to similar themes and places: urban markets, inner-city poverty, people traveling on city buses, Catholic rites, Republican marches, youth culture. The work is a campaign. There is little action. For example, much of his work deals with the problems of ritual: grassroots people in moments of calm at Republican marches, or country folk sitting in a rural bar after a July 12 march.

Often the drama lies in the juxtaposition of themes. Two boys lean against an ugly, pebble-covered fountain on a company campus, just meters from an exquisite May altar. A hat-wearing priest sits stiffly in a bus seat while a small child sprawls asleep across the street, his blond hair catching a ray of sunlight. A shirtless Traveler, fists in a boxing stance, stands over his supine opponent who is lying on the street outside Werburgh Street Welfare Office. Meters away, eyes averted indifferently.

And sometimes the photographs are simply beautiful in an unvarnished and crass way. A boy sits on a bus and holds a sparrowhawk in his gloved hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

O’Shea is the closest thing to a Henri Cartier-Bresson in terms of aesthetics, says Irish Times photographer and videographer Bryan O’Brien. Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka also had a great influence.

Permission to use only with issuance
Permission to use only with issuance
Permission to use only with issuance

Given that Dublin street life understood so much of his work, it’s a surprise that O’Shea grew up on Valentia Island in Co Kerry. The commute to school in Caherciveen involved 18 miles of cycling and two ferry trips a day. It was only after he had completed his studies in English and Philosophy at University College Dublin and worked on construction sites in London that his interest in photography deepened. He traveled the world in the 1970s and ended up teaching English in Japan. It opened his eyes to different types of photography and perspectives.

When he returned to Ireland, the editor of In Dublin Magazine, John S. Doyle, gave him work. Dublin at the time was pioneering in photography that was candid and documented life as it happened. Two extraordinary visual documentarians, Tony Murray and Tom Grace, were working for In Dublin at the time. O’Shea was heavily influenced by them.

His interest in photographing people on buses came from a suggestion from Colm Tóibín, with whom he often worked. “Colm came up with the idea of ​​doing something about how people feel about traveling by bus.”

And that became O’Shea’s approach: capturing what it was like for people in their different lives, often in disadvantaged communities.

Permission to use only with issuance
Permission to use only with issuance

“It wasn’t just about poverty. These people were survivors despite the hardships and lack of money and conditions in which they lived. They survived and went through life with enthusiasm,” he says.

“There are layers of meaning and interpretation. When you photograph people, it simply isn’t proof or a record. There are certain things you can feel when you look at an image. They strive for images that resonate.”

His native Kerry has not been neglected. He has an outstanding body of work of rowing competitions on his native island, and of dogs (and people) trailing the trail of drag hunts on foot (a great passion of his) in south Kerry.

Dan Scully of Photo Museum Ireland has undertaken an extensive project to digitize O’Shea’s work for posterity, as part of a wider task to ensure the work of important Irish photographers is preserved.

The Light of Day retrospective of Tony O’Shea’s work is curated by Trish Lambe and runs through February 18, 2023. Tony O’Shea will be autographing copies of his book on December 17th. photomuseumireland.ie

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