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'I said to Liam Neeson, if we had slept together, you'd remember…' - renowned photographer Kim Haughton talks capturing BLM protests, access to Obama and meeting Neeson

Globally renowned photographer Kim Haughton tells Paul Hopkins about capturing Black Lives Matter protests in DC, access to Obama and learning her trade as a child

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Kim Haughton with her portrait of JP Donleavy, bought by the National Gallery of Ireland

Kim Haughton with her portrait of JP Donleavy, bought by the National Gallery of Ireland

Kim with Hollywood heartthrob Liam Neeson

Kim with Hollywood heartthrob Liam Neeson

Portrait of a Century features Irish/Nigerian schoolgirl Eunice Adeleye who made her First Holy Communion

Portrait of a Century features Irish/Nigerian schoolgirl Eunice Adeleye who made her First Holy Communion

Portrait of a Century features film-maker John Boorman

Portrait of a Century features film-maker John Boorman

Kim Haughton with her portrait of JP Donleavy, bought by the National Gallery of Ireland

A photographer often needs to be up close and personal to capture that moment the thousand words can not. It's difficult to imagine such 'words' failing Kim Haughton. But the gods of the coronavirus played against her: the multi-award-winning Dubliner was in lockdown in her apartment in New York's midtown when word came through that she had landed the job of photo editor for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC.

It should have been frustrating for Haughton but she took it all in her stride - no looking through the glass darkly.

By the time the lockdown was easing, allowing her to move from the city where she had worked as a photographer for the United Nations for five years, the Black Lives Matter protests were starting up. "As we were driving into DC on the Sunday night, they had occupied Lafayette Square and shop windows were being smashed. The following day was the day when the protesters were pepper-sprayed so that Trump could walk to the church for that photo op with the bible.

"I had to be at the IMF at seven that morning. It was incredible to see the destruction from the night before. My Uber driver was visibly shaken as she pointed out all the graffiti and smashed glass. She was from DC and said that her parents had told her about the riots in '68 and this looked similar. Businesses were starting to board up their premises.

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Kim with Hollywood heartthrob Liam Neeson

Kim with Hollywood heartthrob Liam Neeson

Kim with Hollywood heartthrob Liam Neeson

"I went to record one of the protests. That morning, the mayor renamed the street outside the church 'Black Lives Matter Plaza' and they painted 'Black Lives Matter' in huge yellow lettering on the pavement in front of the White House. It was eerily like being at a street party - there were random marches happening in different streets and musicians playing on top of trucks. People were chanting the names of [George] Floyd and other black people who had been victims of the police.''

While in lockdown, Haughton's eager eye for a good picture prompted her to break out from her isolation in NYC every so often. When the coast seemed clear, often at an unholy hour, she pointed her lens on the debris remaining on Manhattan's otherwise empty sidewalks, on those souls left behind after lockdown because the only life they know is the street; her lens on those on the frontline fighting the fight, on neighbours venturing out for food.

"In the beginning, people weren't inclined to engage. Now, months in to it, people are more willing to want some sort of connection, a wave, a shout of hello from six feet away," she says.

When she applied for the UN post back in 2015 she was up against 8,000 other applicants. She says quietly, but confidently, that it was her credentials that saw her through. Having begun her career in the darkroom in the pre-digital days at the Sunday Tribune in the early 1990s, Haughton has an MA in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism from the University of the Arts, London.

The later 1990s saw her working with the Irish Independent in a domain still largely peopled by men. She spent the post-Millennium years covering global conflicts for NGO and government agencies. "I went on my first overseas assignment to Sierra Leone in 1999 during the civil war. It was a real baptism of fire. Then there was Uganda with Bono, and Lesotho with the lovely Eleanor McEvoy."

Her work was exposed to a larger audience though publications such as Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, the Financial Times and the Sunday Times. Her image of horses outside an abandoned house became an iconic representation of Ireland's economic collapse and was chosen as one of just 11 images to feature in the Guardian's 'History of Europe in Pictures 1945-2011'.

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Portrait of a Century features Irish/Nigerian schoolgirl Eunice Adeleye who made her First Holy Communion

Portrait of a Century features Irish/Nigerian schoolgirl Eunice Adeleye who made her First Holy Communion

Portrait of a Century features Irish/Nigerian schoolgirl Eunice Adeleye who made her First Holy Communion

In 2015 she was named 'Irish Photographer to Watch' by Time magazine, which described her work as "at once sparse and textured".

In April 2017, her second major solo exhibition, Portrait Of A Century, opened at the National Museum of Ireland to coincide with her publication of the same name, a hefty and handsome tome of portraits of Irish people, the famous and the everyday, which took the better part of two years to execute.

The same year Haughton was nominated for the global Prix Pictet Photography Prize and the following year was awarded the Zurich/National Gallery of Ireland's Portrait Award, with the gallery subsequently buying her portrait of novelist JP Donleavy who had died not long after he sat for Haughton at his home in Athlone.

With the UN, she photographed many world leaders. "The highlight is that week in mid-September when the General Assembly gathers... It's an incredible experience to have that close proximity."

The 'wow factor' has been Barack Obama: "To have that kind of access to such an iconic figure, to walk around with him, even when he's having his lunch, chatting to Angela Merkel or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia."

She has no truck with Trump. "Most in New York City are with Governor Andrew Cuomo. He brings balance and context to handling the pandemic," she says.

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Portrait of a Century features film-maker John Boorman

Portrait of a Century features film-maker John Boorman

Portrait of a Century features film-maker John Boorman

Brought up in Portmarnock in north County Dublin, Haughton and older sister Sam lost their father to cancer when he was only 36. "It was awful. I was just six. Years later I discovered that he a very good amateur photographer. My mother one day showed me pictures he had taken. He even had an SLR. So, yeah, maybe it is in my blood."

She also credits the guiding hand of primary school teacher Mr O'Connell. "He started a photography class. He would take us to the beach and teach us about the texture of sand as we took pictures of the grains, or to the railway station to study the symmetry of the tracks. I was mesmerised by all this. He took us one day into the National Gallery. I had never been before. When I saw those pictures on the wall, I remember thinking - I was nine - that, yes, this is what I want to do. That somehow I wanted to be part of it, that this was possible."

Haughton cites Dorothea Lange, in particular her Irish work, as being a formidable influence when starting out. Jesus would have made a great subject, she enthuses, and she would wish to have photographed Countess Markievicz. "That idea of her in petticoats but with her rifle under the ruffles appeals. She's at once feminine and then not feminine."

This seems appropriate, as Haughton, though never wearing it consciously, is inherently feminine; and then there's her rifle, her Nikon, a determined hand ever at its trigger.

A would-be portrait of Markievicz brings us back to Portrait Of a Century which has established Haughton as one of the finest portrait photographers of her generation. She tells me her publishers have been "bandying about" the idea of a work to mark 1922, "but this pandemic is hindering that for the moment".

Haughton plies her trade alone, calmly content in her own company. She finds little need for other pursuits - save for wandering around New York's art galleries - or indeed for romance, "though, if Brad Pitt walked in the door right now...".

Why, I ask, does she think her images are so lauded? What is it she brings?

"That master of candid photography Henri Cartier-Bresson said forget about your first 10,000 photos - they are rubbish. I've done much more than that, so, yes, here I am." But then she says: "Our identity changes over time. It is not possible to encapsulate the whole life of a person in a single photograph. For me, photography involves splitting seconds rather than scrutinising lifetimes. Human representations are fleeting and ephemeral by nature. I look for that moment of intimate stillness which exists in the space between what I seek to capture and what the sitter is willing to give away."

When last we met, over dinner in New York last November, I had learnt that JP Donleavy proved farcically difficult to get to sit still long enough to photograph, but Haughton now won't be drawn on that, out of respect for his family. But she indulges me with memories of two other Irish celebrities.

"Stephen Rea doesn't like being photographed all that much and he said to me, 'You know I've been photographed by David Bailey? And he didn't get me. Do you get me?'.

"Liam Neeson, that was in New York. I arrived early at his apartment and then he joined me and I was setting things up. There was that silence and then he said to me, 'Have we met before?'.

"I said we hadn't and he said, with those piercing eyes of his, 'Are you sure we haven't? I can't seem to remember. Did we sleep together?'

"And I said, 'Liam if we had slept together, you'd remember...'."

www.kimhaughton.com

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