Seamus Murphy describes photography as “part history and part magic.” This brief description could be a title for Murphy’s entire archive, as he is the embodiment of the soulful photojournalist. A native of Ireland, he has worked extensively in the Middle East, Europe, Russia and the Far East, Africa, North and South America, and has to date won six World Press Awards. Murphy’s work spans years and continents, but we have chosen to concentrate on the area that captivated him perhaps the most in recent years—Afghanistan. His recent book, “A Darkness Visible,” published in 2008 by Saqi Books of London, is a retrospective of his work in that country since 1994.
Murphy’s mesmerizing collection of black-and-white photographs tells the story of the Afghan people who, enduring a perpetual state of devastation, still maintain a vibrant culture. It also reveals a gifted journalist with the heart of an artist, compelled to undertake an epic project in a country entirely unlike his own. With each return Murphy seems to have become even more deeply involved with the fluctuating reality of the Afghan land and its inhabitants.
In his afterword for “A Darkness Visible,” Murphy describes himself and other photographers as “thieves who sometimes rob but don’t pay back,” though “by necessity.” However, his images speak volumes to the contrary. This remarkable photographer consistently gives warmly and wholeheartedly to his subjects, and his images display a bond rarely achieved even by the most ethnographically talented and artistic observers.
I met Murphy in Perpignan, France, last year at Visa Pour l’Image while he was informally presenting his just-released book to a magazine photo editor. From the moment he began turning the pages I was deeply drawn to the photos and couldn’t help wanting to know more. Every image had a story, and his anecdotes about each one were just as fascinating as the images themselves. The book for me became a must-have, and I went immediately to the bookstore in Perpignan and bought a copy of my own.
Maybe it’s the mysteriousness of black and white that makes the Afghan darkness literally and metaphorically visible in the images, but I think the soulfulness emanates from the photographer himself. How Murphy does this is not easy to explain, so I think the best we can do is look at the images, listen to what he has to say, and let our hearts and minds do the rest.
In the book, complementary essays by Nancy Hatch Dupree and Anthony Loyd serve as verbal bookends to Murphy’s 13-year photographic exposition. The images are each captioned briefly, belying what could surely be a stand-alone, multiple series of essays. My only criticism of the book were I to have one—and I don’t—would be that the reader cannot know the wonderful back stories to the photographs as told to me in Perpignan.
Recently, I had a chance to ask Murphy a few questions about the developmental path of his career that now includes work on every continent, and we focused in particular on his intense, abiding interest in Afghanistan. His response follows, in his own words, and gives a hint of why he opens his book with an inscription from the tomb of Mughal Emperor Babur (1483-1530), who conquered Kabul in 1504 and is buried there:
“If there is a Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”