Sunday 15 September 2019

Graham Clifford: How that iconic Ophelia photo inspired international outpouring of emotion

The now famous image of three men in mourning as waves crash against the coastline in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry Photo: Stephen Kelleghan
The now famous image of three men in mourning as waves crash against the coastline in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry Photo: Stephen Kelleghan

Graham Clifford

It was the photo that captured a moment of peace among days of chaos during Hurricane Ophelia.

This powerful picture of three men watching the waves battering the coastline near Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, has had a wider impact beyond a news story.

Stephen Kelleghan's photo was dramatic, brilliant, awesome.

We later discovered that two of the three men were sons of a local man whose funeral was due to be held that day. Michael Joe O'Sullivan died the previous day but because of the storm his funeral had to be postponed. The third man was a nephew.

When taking the picture Mr Kelleghan didn't realise the family's plight. He was then concerned it may have been intrusive and contacted the family to apologise, but they told him the picture was taken at their late father's favourite spot, and that it was a fitting memorial.

As the reporter working on the story of the photo, I was suddenly inundated with messages from around the world.

One message stood out from Jane O'Connor in Florida. So touched was Ms O'Connor, American-born but with roots in Mayo, by the picture and my words she asked if she could use it in a training programme for medics and administrative staff.

"It impacted me with such meaning of how one picture can have a more personal meaning than what the eye first sees or encounters," she said. "I am the director of HR at a hospital in Florida that was impacted by Hurricane Irma. I lead new employee orientation and would love to incorporate your picture and initial meaning (storm impact) versus real meaning (family grieving) in my presentation as an example of how a team member can face a patient or family member with one first impression only to learn the backstory. And why as care givers we always need to be cognisant of the 'whole' story."

And so, less than 24 hours after the story went online, Ms O'Connor delivered her course to staff. "Everyone's eyes were on the photo looking at the waves at first and as I spoke of the pain the three men were experiencing, I could see everyone's eyes move from the waves to the men and a collective gasp filled the room," she said.

Now, the 'three men in mourning' photo and story is, indirectly, helping families in Florida who are dealing with their own grief.

I also received messages from Irish families where one of the parents was ill and dying. One daughter told me it helped her to step back from the situation.

Rarely as a journalist do you experience such an outpouring of emotion to a story. And Mr Kelleghan's photograph, which will forever be the iconic shot of Ophelia, actually relegated the storm to a bystander.

The real story lay in the dignified silence of those three men.

Irish Independent

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