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From "The Quiet American" to rendition, an Irish photographer's lens on America
DUBLIN — In June 1963 I saw John F. Kennedy in Dublin on his visit to Ireland.
I was sitting on my father's shoulders as we waited with hundreds of others, all waving little Stars and Stripes on Griffith Avenue, to catch a wave from his chariot en route to Dublin airport.
His hair looked red to me, all shining in the June Dublin sun. But was it really red? I can
still see it vividly, but maybe I was making this emperor more Irish.
It is a powerful memory and the fire lit that day has never been quite extinguished. The idea of America then, for a young Irish boy and for millions of others, promised an infinity of dreams. Years later I travelled around the United States with my camera, seeing things
through a different lens.
But these first memories, plus an addiction to watching "The Monkees," "Here's Lucy," "Get Smart" and old American flicks on that recent miracle —Irish TV — formed my earliest thoughts of America.
It seemed next door, but at the same time in another world. America was like a friend that promised a welcome, a second chance. It was a long way away, yet most people had a relative who had moved there, and everyone felt some connection. Significantly, it was a dazzling alternative to the stuffy and suspicious Brits in the other direction.
Months later, seeing my mother in tears for the first time after word came of Kennedy's murder, I was overwhelmed by something I did not comprehend. My father simply swore never to visit America."Didn't they kill Kennedy?" he would say, and he never did.
America is capable of shock as well as awe.
Everything didn't die with Jack Kennedy, no human being is a saint and truth isn't served well by headlines. But along with the fate of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, something big and good, call it generosity, seemed to have been sucked out of the message America was
projecting. And latterly, once what might have been pernicious Cold-War interference in Vietnam have visibly become mindless invasion and domination in Iraq.
My view of America is a journey from "The Quiet American" to rendition.
I have spent a good deal of the past eight years photographing in places where America is supposed to be promoting democracy and stability: Afghanistan, Iraq,Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Kenya, Somalia.
This has been a campaign that has reached across the globe and made all our lives more fragile. It has cost many thousands of lives and created prisoners and victims of torture that will feed extremists and enemy armies for generations to come. The act of rendition, snatching terrorism suspects off the streets to take them to secret prisons, seems impossible to imagine of the America I thought I knew.
The crude "war on terror" has had an impact already deeply felt in London, Madrid and recently in Mumbai. In Iraq, above all, the policy was so unsophisticated and the mistakes so vast that it seems the damage will live on for generations, pleasing only Jihadis in their murky, viral world and the neocons in their own self-fulfilling prophecies.
Whether it was America's bloody vengeance, a willful dishonesty in the grab for power and money or a staggering ineptitude, who can really say? But it's been a hell of a failure, and under President Bush it often felt we — all of us out here in the world who are not American — are all the enemy.
But still there are few of us who don't want to look to the U.S. for hope. Even when it is hardest to see.
To try to find light I went into the place often aligned with America's darkest moment. I went to Dallas in November to photograph the U.S. Presidential election night.
It was a deliberate choice and without morbid motives. Signs were that Obama could do the extraordinary and in one giant step Americans would do the right thing and atone. Not for the
sins of history but at least to begin to address the place that America has lodged itself in the past eight years.
If Dallas 1963 was where something ended, it would also be the place I saw the chance of a new beginning.