Irish Farmers Journal picture editor Jack Caffrey is a familiar face out and about in the countryside and also attracts a large online following through Instagram. He talks to Peter Cheney about agricultural photography and what makes a good photo.
“Basically, I grew up with cameras,” Jack Caffrey recalls. Photography is in his DNA as his dad, John, was also a photographer with the Farmers Journal for over 40 years. “I had this amazing thing called a gadget bag when I grew up and it was a big camera bag full of equipment that I used to think was the best thing in the world.” Perhaps surprisingly, for his job, he’s a Dub.
“We were working as Dublin men, with no farming knowledge, working in the farming industry,” he says of working with his dad. It became like learning a natural trade. The best training that he ever had was “being put out on the road with a camera and doing freelance work and trying to come up with different ways to take pictures.”
Caffrey has now spent over 15 years documenting farming life. “Agriculture has been a revelation because it’s a very technical business,” he comments. “For me, my biggest learning is agriculture and meeting the people and learning the country.”
The foot and mouth crisis was “one of the stand-out news events” – which sadly included watching farmers’ livelihoods fall apart in the Cooley Mountains. Movement in the countryside was effectively shut down but the newspaper still had to be published.
So what makes a good photograph?
“Really simply, it’s about composition and light – and then you add the subject matter to that.” Photography is, quite literally, the study of light so he’s always thinking about where the light is coming from and what it is landing on and reflecting off.
“And then there’s something within that frame that grabs your attention, that holds you.” This can be a funny or serious moment or an element of tension: “Once you are looking through that frame, you are composing, you are making that image work.”
There’s also a serendipity aspect to it with unknown elements coming together within the frame to make a good picture: “It’s like a happy accident that just happens and you know that you’ve got the shot. You walk away and you think: ‘I have something there.’ You review the photograph afterwards and it kind of reveals itself to you.”
It’s “quite an exciting” process and the image captures truth from its creator’s perspective. Livestock marts are a favourite subject for him. “A microcosm of commercial buying and selling and human life,” the mart is perceived as a “very machismo place” but also the scene of “beautiful moments of camaraderie” and people going there for a bit of conversation, humour and company.
“That, for me, is a really wonderful honour and invite,” he adds, “to be able to go there with my camera and be accepted in this community and just be a part of it and document that. It never gets boring for me.” He’s keen to highlight the kindness which people show when they hear he’s from the Journal. There’s often a bit of banter about getting on the front page.
Caffrey spends much of his free time on Instagram, where he has 18,200 followers. “For me, it’s like a busman’s holiday,” he remarks. After a day of snapping in the countryside, he loves to “get lost in my own city and explore my city with my mobile phone in hand.”
Instagram is a new and exciting medium, which represents “the democratisation of photography.” Many people now have a camera in their pocket with the ability to create, share and consume imagery as they walk around in their daily lives.
Finding really good quality imagery online is a “real discovery … and I do get such a kick from it.” He’s also a fan of film and contemporary art which help him to wind down after learning about the technicalities of cow fertility and grass growth. He quips: “I don’t have the land out the back here in the Liberties to show that off.”