SeÁn Padraic Birnie
University: University of Brighton, M.A. Photography
Can you give us an overview of the work you’re creating? Have you got a working title? One current project involves photographing the various devices used in paranormal research: cameras, thermometers, Geiger counters, compasses, dowsing rods and pendulums, Dictaphones and laser grids, torches, watches and telephones. The various instruments are suspended by wire in the darkness of a studio and then carefully lit and shot on sheet film. It’s going to be called Paraphernalia. I think.
What are some common themes or subjects that run through your work? All of my work stems from prior literary interests in fantastic and supernatural literature. Photography as such became a subject in my own writing, in fiction and essays, insofar as it seemed to condense a range of ideas – concerning familiarity and estrangement, past and present, distance and intimacy, the idea of haunting, the status of images and likenesses, and so on – with a peculiar clarity. It was a theme and motif that kind of got wildly out of hand and somehow escaped into the world.
Somewhat more specifically, my current work is concerned with the relationship between communications technology and the idea of haunting: 19th Century spirit photography, the relation between a technological or artistic medium and spirit mediumship, the desire, everywhere in photography, for a form of contact with some kind of Beyond (the past, a posthumous future beyond time, Exotic faraway places, etc.). The camera, the dark room, and the computer all figure here in various ways: photography’s various black boxes, their necessary obscurity, and the kind of evanescent visibility they seem to promise.
How are you hoping for the Graduate Photographers Award to benefit your future and career as a photographer? I just want to keep making work and hope to maintain the momentum gathered while studying. In that regard, this last year or thereabouts has been okay. I was really shocked to be nominated for the award, and the confidence boost was great. So much of making work seems to be about tricking yourself into the confidence to do so.
Who or what influences and motivates you the most when making new work? What I’m reading. The materials I’m working with. The subject and the materials it seems to require. I think that struggle with materials – with the camera, with the subject, with things outside of yourself – is really important; the original idea must always be put through that process. Sometimes it emerges seemingly intact (and sometimes it’s the other way round). I can’t remember who used the phrase an enabling impediment to describe what a medium is, but I think it’s great. Other photographers, of course, but that influence tends to take a slower effect. For new work it’s usually things that fall out of what I’m reading and then the material ways in which I might begin to sound them out.
We understand that the mentorship lasts for one year; can you tell us what you’ve learnt so far and what your next steps are? Who is your mentor? I’m still waiting for confirmation as to who it will be and when it will start.
What are you hoping to achieve from your mentorship with Magnum? Isolation can box you in. Conversation opens you out. And working with people you’ve never met before and might be nothing like you – you always need to be challenged. My only hope, really, is to make better work.