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Every picture tells a story

30 November, 1999

Noel Gavin, a photographer with the “Irish Daily Star” tells how his work as a photographer, especially in so-called Third World countries has inspired to the the stories of the poor.

I was twelve when I received a gift which ultimately changed my life. It was my birthday. The bearer of the life-changing gift – a camera – was my mother. I was thrilled with my new gadget but didn’t realize that from that day onwards, I would hold a camera almost every day for decades to come.

Professional career
Today I manage the photographic services at the Daily Star. When I am not on the road taking photographs myself, I am organizing rosters to ensure that we have photographs in the paper which reflect the news of the day.
My first photograph was published in the Limerick Leader when I was just thirteen years old. I was absolutely ecstatic. Since then, I have had hundreds of shots in newsprint. I have also received a number of photographic awards. And of course, I have gone through many cameras over the years!

While I don’t have the same heart-thumping reaction every time I see my photograph in the newspaper as I did in my teenage years, I am still excited by my work and get a thrill from capturing a good image. Every day is different and there are occasions when you are acutely aware that you are watching a significant and historical event unfolding. I have been on hand with my camera for general elections, political dramas and human tragedies. I’ve met world statesmen and ‘A-list’ celebrities.

But some of the photographs I’m proudest of involve people who are unknown and caught in life-and-death dramas that will never get the world’s attention or page one in a national newspaper. For more than ten years, I have taken photographs in the developing world. I first travelled there in 1992 with Concern during the famine in Somalia. Almost every year since then, I have returned to capture the work of Trócaire and missionary orders.

A Rwandan story
It is on these assignments that I have met people who have changed my life; people such as Jacqueline whom I met in Rwanda in 1999 when she was a little girl with big responsibilities. Her father had died during the genocide and her mother had passed away only a few months before our meeting.

Jacqueline had her little brother Florien strapped to her back. He was severely malnourished; while more than one-year old, he actually looked like a newborn baby in Ireland. Jacqueline was struggling to care for him and her other siblings. The stress was telling.

I took her photograph and Trócaire arranged to look after her. While I was confident she would be cared for, her image haunted me. I had two children – Noel and Jane – about the same age as Jacqueline and their lives were so carefree compared to the girl I looked at through my lense.

Some five years later, I returned to Rwanda and went in search of Jacqueline. Florien had survived his infancy and was a bright but small child. A relative had taken over the care of Jacqueline and her family but the siblings had been split up. This time I kept in touch with Jacqueline when I returned to Ireland and have seen over the years how her life has progressed, including being reunited with her brothers and sisters.

On my trips, I have visited poor communities where families live a hand-to-mouth existence. They struggle to send their children to school. They toil to tend to the crops they have planted in tired and over worked soil. Their homes are makeshift and unstable. Electricity supply, if they have it, is sporadic and no-one can afford to see a doctor or pay for medicines if they get sick.

Yet I have always been welcomed into these homes. They have shared their meagre belongings. They have shown dignity through their adversity. I have been very proud to be able to take their photographs and I hope to reflect their strength of character.

Strength of spirit
My work has always made me wonder at the human spirit. I have travelled to Pakistan during the US war in Afghanistan. I was impressed by how people in difficult circumstances can delve into that well of resourcefulness to make ends meet and how people can extend the hand of friendship to one another.

During the tsunami crisis of 2004, 1 travelled to Indonesia and got involved in the relief effort. The survivors were left destitute and heartbroken after losing their loved ones and belongings. Once again they showed tremendous resilience and strength of character as they went about rebuilding their lives. They also showed tremendous faith. Instead of being angry at their tragedy, time and again they proclaimed, ‘God is good. He has spared us’.

There have also been times of great joy such as sharing the excitement of the people in Sierra Leone when the ten-year civil war was finally declared over. I have looked in wonder at many people I have met on my travels whose work as trade unionists or human rights activists has put them and their families in danger.

I am angry at the inequality in the world and the situation where poor countries are forced to service unpayable debts and do not have the resources to invest in vital social services such as education and health. In these circumstances, families find it impossible to work their way out of poverty or to give their sons and daughters the chance of a better life.

Working with development agencies and missionaries has been enlightening and humbling. I have met individuals who have demonstrated tremendous courage and concern for their fellow human beings. My work in the developing world has made me very conscious of my responsibility to my fellow man. I appreciate the gifts I have, including my family and supportive friends. I try not to take people or things for granted.

I have seen people put their faith in action and have always been touched by their unswerving belief in God. You can’t help but examine your own religious beliefs when you meet so many people who are inspired by the Bible. Indeed, I have met many people who have been inspired by God. I remember one person in Guatemala who during the genocide read the Bible every day that he lived in hiding in the jungle. The words of the scriptures inspired him to keep going and he, in turn, inspired me.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.