Dublin-born photographer El Keegan has enjoyed both commercial and artistic success in her field, photographing the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, and more. Recently we spoke with Keegan about her passion for her profession, and her latest project, Abhaile, which documents the Irish immigrant experience.
What are your own roots?
I was born and raised in Dublin, but I have lived in Toronto for the last five years.
When and why did you first become interested in photography?
I loved photography from a very young age. I did a degree in Communications and specialized in photography, but it was not until I was scouted by the Irish Independent for my work on the college paper that I really believed it was a possibility for me.
Are they the same reasons that you continue to be involved today?
To me, there is an excitement in capturing a fleeting moment. That stolen glance, the warmth in someone’s eyes when they look at a loved one. Photography has always been rewarding because of the connections it brings and the ability to get to capture the emotion of a moment, whether that is in portraiture or even a food and beverage shot. It is always about creating something authentic and emotional, and it has been that way since the start.
How has your work evolved over the years?
I began my career as a photojournalist and it was a baptism by fire. I would only get a phone number as my assignment and I would have to connect with the person, the event, the feeling of a story almost instantly, and the subjects varied across all walks of life. I gradually moved from news to features, capturing magazine covers of famous athletes and doing lifestyle spreads for publications across Ireland and internationally as well. When I moved to Toronto, I delved into commercial photography in a huge way focusing on food and beverage photography for big brands. I love to build an image from scratch, to develop a fourth of July picnic, a barbeque with friends, a schoolyard, a lavish Christmas get-together, all from a small studio is such a thrill. I loved the technical challenges it brought, and the potential to convey emotion in static products. Now I love to cover everything. I do large scale commercial shoots for brands like Tim Horton’s, Pepsi, KitchenAid, and Lindt, but I also have a passion for dog photography, capturing portraits and doing Photoshop based artwork.
What are the challenges of the vocation?
In order to succeed in this industry, you have to work relentlessly. There are thousands out there who want to do what you are doing, to work with your clients, and to fill your seat. You need to constantly prove yourself in everything you do. It is so important to be adaptable, to have strong communication skills, to have a deep passion for photography, to push yourself to learn in order to keep excelling.
What are the rewards?
That feeling of creating something that resonates with people. To stop people in their tracks and let the images sink in. To connect with people and clients from all walks of life. To see your work across the world. To know that after all these years, you’re still hungry for it.
What have been some career highlights to date?
I got to be one of only two photographers in Ireland granted access to capture a private event with Barack and Michelle Obama. I got my images published on over 80 magazine covers. I have had a subway poster campaign across every station in Toronto for two years straight. In all of this, the enthusiasm people have shown for Abhaile has been so rewarding. It is the first time that I have completed a personal project outside of my commissions. It is a true expression of my experience living away from home, away from my family and from everything I have ever known. To have something so deeply personal so well received has been the greatest honor.
Is your creative process more ‘inspirational’ or ‘perspirational’?
Perspirational. For every image you see, years have gone into making it just so. Every shoot, every concept has a learning curve, be it in preparation or execution, nothing I do is simply achieved. It is carried out with determination and hard work. At this point in my career I could carry out so many shoots with my eyes closed – metaphorically speaking of course – but it is so important to me that every shoot is treated as a brand new experience, with potential for even greater success than the last.
What makes your work unique?
I bring an emotional quality to all of my work. From portraits to products, I create an atmosphere, something tangible far beyond a two-dimensional image. I never look at a shot and think, light from the left, I think, this beautiful spread would be enjoyed about 8:30 am, with family, bleary-eyed, pre-coffee, in the winter months. I communicate that with lighting and composition. I want people to see themselves in my work no matter the subject.
What makes a good photo?
I think that is so subjective. To me, though, emotion is king. So much imagery online these days is just carbon copies and fake smiles. When someone can allow themselves to let go, to laugh until they cry, to allow themselves to be vulnerable, I think that makes an incredible image.
What inspired Abhaile?
I am the youngest of four siblings, I was the last to emigrate. Since I was 15, it seems like we were always driving to Dublin airport to see another family member off. Our relationships were entirely online, with 12 to 14-hour time differences. Emigration has made up the fabric of our family for so long that when I moved to Toronto five years ago it made me look at my new world in a completely different light. I saw everything that was new, but I felt everyone I had left behind. Every bar, cafe, friend, and family member. This city is my home now but for so long I have felt like I don’t fully belong. Toronto is a multicultural hub. It is common to identify with a culture outside of North America but I was holding on so tight to my memories of home that I felt like I was living in Limbo. I tried to identify what my evolved sense of home was, by bringing these very personal icons of home to my current surroundings I was allowing myself space to feel at home in a new unexplored territory. To finally belong to this hybrid.
What has the response been like so far?
It has been so wonderful. I worked for months to create something I resonated so deeply with, to hear how many others see themselves in what I’ve created is so rewarding. So many people have taken the time out of their day to communicate what each image means to them. That they finally find a home in my work too.
How will you follow it up?
In an ideal world, COVID will pass and as such, I will be allowed to travel. I would love to add more cities to this project. The Irish diaspora is a thing of great power and reach. I would love to share this piece of home with a much greater audience.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the visual arts in Ireland?
I think there is great creativity and talent in Ireland, especially in the visual arts. I do feel from my own personal experience there is a ceiling though and a limit in the prospects available. There are incredible photographers and artists at home killing it, but I felt limited in the amount and scale of opportunities.
How can it be improved?
Honoring and investing in the wealth of talent at home is a great start. There are countless photographers and artists working day and night for their big break. I would love to think they wouldn’t need to emigrate to reach their potential.
What is on your creative agenda for the remainder of 2020 and going into 2021?
I hope to encourage people to buy my prints and to take a piece of their city home. With COVID there is an element of uncertainty, but I hope to see myself back on set in the coming weeks adapting to the new normal. I have another project up my sleeve as well that I look forward to investing more time in over the next year.