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Seamus Murphy Interview November 20, 2011

Posted by Geoffrey Hiller in Afghanistan, MediaStorm, Multimedia.
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A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan is one of the finest multimedia pieces I’ve seen recently. Over 30 minutes in length, the images, audio and editing weave a gripping and poetic story. Partially told in the first person by Seamus (the multiple points of view are what make it so effective), I was transported to Kabul. This is what multimedia is meant to do. Seamus has spent over 15 years covering Afghanistan. His book A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan was published in 2008.

Project Background: From the Soviet invasion and the Mujaheddin resistance to the Taliban and the American occupation, A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan examines thirty years of Afghan history. It is the story of ordinary citizens whose lives play out in the shadow of superpowers. There are tales of violence to be sure, but there is also love and even romance. Based on 14 trips to Afghanistan between 1994 and 2010, photojournalist Seamus Murphy (b.1959. Ireland) chronicles a people caught time and again in political turmoil, struggling to find their way. Outsiders often see Afghanistan as a problem in need of a solution: a conflict region that needs more troops or another election. But in seeing Afghanistan as a problem, the people of the country, and their desire for self-determination, are often overlooked.”

Seamus Murphy interview with Geoffrey Hiller : 

How did the collaboration between you and MediaStorm come about?

Brian and I had been talking before about working on an Afghan film, but when he came to my show at the VII gallery in New York he just said “Right, Lets do it!”

How long was the post production for the project?

After we agreed we were going to do it, Brian said he needed to see every frame I shot in Afghanistan. As most was on film, and not digitized not even in contact sheets, he had to go through all the negatives. So I flew with 900 sheets of negatives in hand luggage and we spent the best part of a week with a loupe and wax pencil . That yielded an edit of 7,000. Now I had to scan them low res so they could be used on screen. For this I used a $100 ION scanner that basically takes a snap of the frame so is very quick. That took me three days but for the final piece I made hi- res scans. After shooting in Afghanistan in May and June 2010 for five weeks I delivered all the files and over 30 hours of interviews. MediaStorm spent nine months on production.

What was you participation in producing the project? Did you work alongside the producers and provide feedback?

Not really, the stills were done, so what was needed was the video footage and interviews. I had meetings with Brian and Eric and we went over the technical details, for example- how to get good audio, etc. We received a really timely grant from SAJA (South Asian Journalists Association) which enabled me to go and get that element which I did and supplied them with the material.

Do you work with a fixer in Afghanistan? How has that changed since you first went there in 1994? Did you work with one on your last trip?

When I am working on my own, which is most of the time, I make my way with one Afghan driver- Rasool-  and his little Toyota which I have worked with for years. I normally don’t have the budget for a fixer/translator as well  but it  is also a deliberate choice, because it  means I end up in places away from the pack and the news agenda, which is what interests me in the story, as it is too limited. In the beginning Rasool’s English was minimal, but over the years- and working with me- he now has good English. I found out only recently that his father is Ramazan, a legendary driver I had worked with back in 1994, and who survived more bullets and bombs than anyone has any right to.

Your work has a different tone from so many of the photographs that I see coming out of Afghanistan. How has your process changed over a period of almost 20 years in depicting the place?

I don’t think it has, although I have learned a lot about the place and people over the years. I shoot what interests me and when I land I follow my instincts. The work I have done there has either been on my own or with self-generated assignments where it’s my idea anyway. And if there is a brief there is always room -or I allow myself the time- to make it personal.

Did you work from any kind of script when shooting the video?

Not really, I had meetings in New York with Brian Storm and Eric Maierson, the producer and highly gifted editor on the project. I suggested themes and people I thought relevant, interesting and sometimes neglected in the story of what the Afghans have been through since I started going there in 1994. These were stories I had found and people I had come across in my travels in Afghanistan. The narrative emerged from an understanding of the basic question: Who are the Afghans and what do they want? That was also the basis for my book A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan. Of the 99 images in the book, there are just two of anyone western, and this was deliberate. One is of the hand of a US serviceman playing basketball in Bagram, the other is a silhouette of the backs of two airmen on an operation, looking out on the enormity of the landscape. This is is not their story.  This has been such a neglected part of coverage of the country, and we all agreed that it would also make for a compelling film. The narrative flowed from this.

Were you surprised by the end result of the piece?

Yes and no. It was always going to be very different from how I would have done it myself, but that was one of the reasons for doing it in the first place.  They are very strong on narrative, I am a bit looser but I am so close to the material that it needs someone fresh and new, who can see elements and potential that I don’t- and they certainly did that. When I saw the rough cut for the first time I was surprised. I had some issues with some things- which we largely sorted out and agreed upon. But I have to say, I am really happy with what we have done.

In terms of workflow on later trips, how did you manage switching between shooting video, stills  and gathering audio?  What were the pros and cons of your approach?

There was one trip to shoot video with the Canon 5D MK 2, although interviews were largely shot on a Canon  XHA1 for the extra control of audio. I also recorded audio and ambient sounds with an Edirol recorder. I also shot stills- color digital and a lot of  Kodak Tri-X – especially of the Ba Deli family. It was a crash course but it didn’t take long to adapt once I decided what I wanted to do. It does make it hard at times with  all the choices- but its not a bad problem to have.

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