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The Irish famine: my ancestors' plight

Judith Kimber FRPS uncovers her family history through the award-winning audio visual project Safe

Photography has been a constant in the life of Judith Kimber FRPS. Based in Belfast, where she is head of music in a girls’ school, Kimber has fond childhood memories of her and her siblings helping their grandfather in the darkroom. Her interest in photography lasted into adulthood, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that she approached the medium with a more considered and focused artistic purpose.

After joining a camera club in 2014, Judith was introduced to the world of audio visual (AV). Enabling her to merge her passions for photography, music and creative writing, AV has expanded her photographic practice while allowing her to delve deeper into her family history.

Here, Judith explains what inspired her audio visual project Safe – which won gold at the RPS International Audio Visual Festival in September 2021 – and the impact of the famine workhouses on Ireland.

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Safe began in 2017. I didn’t start it with the intention of it becoming an AV piece; it was more of a photographic exploration of my ancestors’ experiences in the workhouses during the Irish Famine. My investigating led me to the story of my great-great-grandfather, James Elliott, who, along with his siblings, Cate and Irvine, had to fend for themselves in Irvinestown workhouse, county Fermanagh, after their mother, Margaret, and baby sibling died there.

“For the project I visited some of Ireland’s surviving workhouses, with those still remaining at Bawnboy and Portumna being the most evocative for me. And despite Irvinestown workhouse – where my ancestors were taken in – having been demolished in 1964, I got to visit the nearby memorial site to connect to the experiences of my family.

“It was hugely rewarding to get a much better understanding of my family history. Looking at the workhouse records made my family’s past much more visceral. It was an incredibly emotional experience and made me feel so close to them.

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“This sometimes divisive reaction demonstrates the power of AV. The combination of photography, writing and music makes it an evocative genre, which offers a more immersive experience than viewing photographs in a gallery does. Watching your work play to an audience is really enjoyable. It’s extremely rewarding seeing your work through others’ eyes and watching people react in real time.

“To have Safe win gold at the RPS International Audio Visual Festival in the 50th anniversary year since the Society first awarded a distinction in the AV genre is a huge honour. And securing this win in the same year that I’ve successfully achieved my Associate in Visual Art and Fellowship in Audio Visual has just been incredible.

“I hope Safe continues to help audiences connect to this era of Ireland’s history and inspires them to share their own families’ stories of the workhouses. After all, knowing the truth of the past will help us make a better future.”

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