BBC News

A community's tales

Phil Coomes
Picture editor


By their very nature, portrait photographs are silent, mute, allowing the viewer to layer on their own meaning and even to conjure up the personality of the sitter. One photographer, Damian Drohan is tackling this by creating a sound-portrait, which is simply an audio recording of the subject shown alongside their portrait. He has used the technique on his latest project that looks at residents of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, Ireland, and here he explains what it is about this approach that appeals to him.

Richard Avedon once famously said: "All photographs are accurate - none of them are the truth." He recognised the limitations of the medium, or at least its descriptive abilities. He pushed the descriptive abilities to a level seldom, if ever surpassed.

Is it better for the viewer of the portrait to be left in some doubt? Should the photographer's role end at describing with sensitivity and accuracy what someone looked like, under a particular set of circumstances? As a portrait photographer, or documentary portrait photographer, these are some of the "whys" which constantly play on my mind.

image copyrightDamian Drohan
image captionTemporary window display of the work in Carrick-on-Suir

Why large format? I tell myself that it's not an affectation, an expression of "scarcity thinking". I like to think the finer detail allows the viewer more time, and greater scrutiny of the person in front of them. The lines in their faces, creases in their clothes, how long since they shaved. The pace of the encounter is slow, and encourages a very intense gaze, on my part, the sitter's and hopefully the viewers'. My hope is that somewhere in that meeting, a record of the encounter will be formed.

Why audio? It's the richness and timbre of the voice, or strength, or frailty or musicality. It's the wonderful surprise of an austere concurrence turning into a rich human encounter. The laughter, or bittersweet remembrance. In three out of five encounters there may be glimmers but no gems. And when I'm ready to give up on recording interviews, a tall, thin man, taciturn and reserved tells me how he met his soulmate at the age of 72, and about his 20 years religious service as a hermit and the daily meditation and inner silence which still accompany him. The local curate reveals a deep love of tattoos - he has 22. An accomplished artist tells how he walked the breadth of Waterford City, in a day, searching for the girl he wanted to ask out. They're simple, universal tales of love, loss, and ambition which have been generously shared.

image copyrightDamian Drohan
image captionThe pictures were shot in a former chemist's shop

I love the mystery of a great portrait. I love to spend time poring over an Avedon, a Pyke. I love Alastair Thain's Goya-esque images of Marines. I also love, however, hearing the richness and nuance of a voice recalling a personal story, and when someone says: "I completely changed my mind about that man after hearing his interview, I always thought he was aloof." My hope is that people enjoy the portraits and that maybe, after listening to an interview they feel like they've sat for an intimate conversation with a stranger, and got to know them a little better.

Image and audio, are the two synergistic? Not always. Hopefully they paint a slightly fuller portrait of the person, and leave the viewer with just enough questions.

To bring the portraits to life head over to Damian Drohan's Soundportraits website or click the links below each portrait to go directly to their page.

image copyrightDamian Drohan
image copyrightDamian Drohan
image copyrightDamian Drohan
image copyrightDamian Drohan