Reflections on the state we’re in: Capturing the faces of modern Ireland

Photographer Deirdre Brennan has been turning her lens on the people of Ireland

Has there ever been a more photographed era in human history? While smartphones may have made snappers of us all, Irish photographer Deirdre Brennan takes things to the next level. “I love combining image experimentation with historic and social research,” says Brennan, who has marked the Centenary of the Irish State this year by creating a series of portraits of the people who make up our population today.

This simple idea acquires magic in Brennan’s hands. Her subjects pose for their close-ups with a hand mirror, itself as old as the State, while musing on the state we’re in. Their thoughts are an illuminating mixture of the positive and the negative, tinged with pride, gratitude, critique, optimism and concern.

“As with all stories, it takes months of research and thinking to figure out the aesthetics,” says Brennan, who was inspired by a Francis Bacon postcard tacked onto the wall in her studio. Finding the right mirror proved tricky, until one day she turned onto a street she had never been down before and discovered the shop Pretty Vintage Belfast.

“I wandered in and asked mother and daughter proprietors, Mary and Mandy Rosenberg, if they would have a hand mirror. Mary disappeared beneath the counter and emerged a few minutes later with a beautiful 1920s Bakelite mirror. The minute I saw it I knew that it was just perfect for the project.” The shop, she adds, “is a treasure trove and well worth the visit”.


Originally graduating from the National College of Art and Design, Brennan spent time in New York, before returning to Dublin where she now lives. She still works with the New York Times, where her subjects have included Hilary Clinton and Mary Robinson; and her work has appeared in Time Magazine, Newsweek, Stern, the Smithsonian and more. In 2008, she was named one of the 10 Women Who Wrote History With Their Cameras at the International Photojournalism Festival, Visa Pour L’Image.

Brennan’s next project, Looking for Brigid, is being made to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the Saint’s death with portraits of Brigids around the country. Some believe the saint to be even more ancient, evolving from the Celtic goddess Bríd, but never mind that, it’s a great concept and, as the artist says “like all good ideas, came to me while I was making a cup of tea”.

Since then, she has been “meeting the most wonderful Brigids [and Bridgets, Bríds and any other spelling of the name you care to mention], ranging from three years old to 100. The project “is really an examination of the status of women in modern-day Ireland.” While we await its conclusion, Brennan’s multi-award-winning Reflection on 100 Years of the Irish State will be at Paris Photo from November 7th – 12th,, and is online at

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture