The assignment, Putting Yourself in the Picture, is an exploration in self-portraiture. The assignment brief suggests that “you may choose to explore your own identity or masquerade as someone else, or use empty locations or objects to speak of your experiences. However you choose to approach it, use yourself – directly or indirectly – as subject matter”. The brief also asked that students keep a diary for a period of at least two weeks, which may then be used as source material or inspiration for the assignment.
I read the assignment brief when I first set out on Part Three of the course, and so I kept a diary on and off from the beginning. When the time finally came to begin the assignment, I had accrued a number of months worth of diary entries to draw upon. However, my diary made for a pretty boring read, as I failed to commit any real depth or emotion to it’s pages. Having already dealt with the subject of routine and boredom in the previous assignment, and struggling to gain any other inspiration from the diary, I asked a friend to read and highlight the most interesting elements from it. While this exercise didn’t yield any strong or significant direction, it did force me to sideline the diary, and broaden my view of the assignment brief.
After reviewing the photographers researched in this section of the course, I found a renewed appeal in the work of Gillian Wearing, Trish Morrissey and Nikki S. Lee, who all masquerade as other people in their photographs. Although the assignment brief did suggest the option to masquerade as someone else, by maintaining a diary for as long as I did, I developed a degree of tunnel vision and probably dismissed the idea a little too quickly. While considering the idea of putting myself into some form of parody or masquerading as someone else, an interesting event occurred which informed the direction of the assignment. My submission for this assignment grew out of a conversation about my family history.
For a number of years, I’ve wanted to carry out an investigation into the ancestry on my father’s side, where less is know than that of my mother’s. However, between work, study and other commitments, I’ve never had time to undertake such an endeavor. Two years ago, for my father’s retirement, I gave him a book entitled, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham. My motives for giving such a present were selfish, as I had hoped my father would put his new found freedom to good use and undertake the ancestral investigation I was curious about. Unfortunately my hopes for the project were suspended as my newly retired father had no trouble occupying his time with his own pursuits and hobbies.
While visiting my parents this Christmas, a conversation began after dinner one evening about various deceased members of our family. A similar conversation took place the year before but, my ability to recall the details of the conversation were challenged by a generous helping of Merlot. Any authority on ancestral research will tell you that the most import place to start is by getting as much information as possible from the living members of the family, while you still can. Learning from my previous mistake, I grabbed a notebook into which I scribbled all the details my father surrendered. At some point during the evening, a small dust-covered box of photographs was unearthed from the jungle that is the attic. This had the effect of bringing many stories to life and putting names to some unknown faces heretofore unknown to me. I photographed my parents that evening as they talked and studied the box of photographs. The images I made that evening did not appear as part of the final project but they planted a seed.
That evening I found a certain affinity towards a particular photograph. It features my great-grandfather John Murphy (known as Jack), a baker by trade, standing, arms folded on the roof of Simcox bakery in Cork City, were he worked for many years. My father had grown up with the understanding that Jack Murphy had served with the British Army in India, but was unsure as to the truth of the claim.
My father had always been happy to answer any questions I had about our family but, for one reason or another he never took up the search himself. With a little online research, I was able to show my father the 1911 census form, as filled out by my great-grandfather. The form lists the members of the Cork City house, which was home to Jack Murphy, his wife Elizabeth, and his three year old daughter Margaret, my father’s mother. Seeing Jack Murphy’s signature in the bottom right-hand corner of the census form, made more than a hundred years ago by his own hand had a significant effect on both my father and I. It finally gave us the motivation we had previously lacked to begin our ancestry quest in earnest.
My father was now on the case, and with further investigation and sending a letter that very night, he managed to obtain the birth and marriage certificates of a number of our ancestors. Each document in turn had the effect of filling in more blanks and helped to further shape our family tree. Tracing Jack Murphy’s military records proved a little more difficult, but with the help of a friend who previously worked in the Local Studies Department of Limerick City Library, and is an expert in the area of genealogy, we were able confirm Jack Murphy’s military service. Jack enlisted in January 1891, serving almost 8 years with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, with 4.5 years of his service spent between India and South Africa.
Our investigation into our family history is by no means finished, yet I’ve found it to be an incredibly exiting and rewarding journey. I found great affinity for my great-grandfather, and so I decided to incorporate him into the assignment in some way.
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