Caroline Irby

The Female Gaze

Photography by Caroline Irby

When Caroline Irby first picked-up a camera aged just thirteen, what began as a teenage a hobby soon developed into an award-winning career. Now a documentary and portraiture photographer, the following (plagerised) excerpt is from a press release written to publicise her recent exhibition, ‘Claiming a new place on Earth’.

“Working closely with NGOs, covering humanitarian stories, particularly in Africa, over many years, in 2010, Caroline’s first book, A Child from Everywhere, was published by Black Dog Publishing. Interviewing children from 185 different countries, all now living in the UK. Migration and childhood are ongoing subjects of interest for Caroline. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, and Caroline’s current focus is on refugees in the UK”.

Taking impactful pictures that delicately capture a glimpse of the subjects’ soul, is one of the reasons Caroline’s work feels so right for the times we’re in. In Caroline’s ‘other’ career, she photographs – amongst other clients – advertising campaigns for childrenswear designers, proving she has the patience of a saint. (Working with kids equals nerves of steel, non?)

Wearing a simple uniform of jumpsuits, cross-body-bags, Stan Smiths and red sunglasses, her no-fuss approach to fashion is stylish-yet-understated. Married to Tom and mother to Laszlo, 7, and Elodie, 4, Caroline is a woman who asks a lot of questions, but in a good way. She’s interested in the world: she’s interested in people, as is evident throughout her work. Curious? Meet our woman behind the lens. Meet Caro.

My father showed me how to use his old Olympus when I was 13…

Boom! That was it. As a child I often felt I was standing on the outside of things, watching, and now my watching had a purpose. I spent most of my teenage years either photographing or in the darkroom, it was my sanctuary within that strange thing that is boarding school. When I was about 16, my father sent me an article about the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, I remember he’d torn it out of The Economist. I was amazed by his work, and looked at and read everything he’d shot and written, then after school got an internship in Paris at Magnum, the photo agency Cartier-Bresson had founded. Being immersed in their achive and meeting some of my heroes as they came into the agency from foreign assignments turned me on to doing that type of work.


I spent years on the road covering humanitarian stories, and the effects of conflict...

I thought I’d be back on the road by the time my baby was six months old. Then I met my son and thought, there’s no way I’m leaving you! I became very absorbed in looking after him, and mostly I loved it; I couldn’t find the headspace or any other kind of space to think clearly about work. I breastfed him for quite a long time, and turned down some very good jobs because - what if he wouldn’t take a bottle and I was in the Congo. So the nature of my work became different for a while – I worked less, and the projects I accepted were initially only in the UK. After I’d weaned him I started to travel again, but not a lot – I wanted me going away to feel like an anomaly, not the norm. I also said no to anything that felt very risky – I still feel that there are a good number of photographers who can cover dangerous situations, but no one else who can be mother to my children. It’s such a personal choice though, and there are photographers who become mothers, and continue to tell stories from dangerous places brilliantly. The upshot of my travelling less is that I’m more engaged with what is happening in this country. There was a time when I was only ever in the UK long enough to get a fresh round of jabs and have my camera repaired - I didn’t have much of a feel for what was happening here. But some of the things I’m most interested in documenting – the effects of conflict, the mass movement of people across the globe – are now almost as evident here as they are in Syria or Sudan, and I’m glad to be spending more time documenting this end of things. There’s always been a commercial thread to my work too, and this has grown since having children – alongside the refugee stories, I shoot quite a bit of children’s fashion, and ad campaigns for various brands, usually quite child-centred.
Photography by Caroline Irby

I was recently working with UNICEF in Europe, photographing child refugees...

A few months ago, I returned from Athens, photographing unaccompanied minors who have mainly fled Syria and Afghanistan, and were hoping to get to the UK under the Dubs amendment, but that door has now closed. They are fifteen years old, bearded and moustached - and total children. Many of them have missed years of school due to conflict; they’ve made a traumatic journey through the Middle East and across the Mediterranean, often without their family, losing whatever possessions they were able to bring with them along the way. Even if they do make it to the country they hoped to reach, by this time many are on the cusp of adulthood: they will soon be 18 and flying solo, possibly without good knowledge of the host language, without a proper education, and without family support.

As a parent, I now see my own children in the children I photograph...

Before I had children I was more inclined to take the pictures and move on. I am very affected now by what I see and hear. I try not to walk away, try to stay engaged and not take peace or prosperity for granted. Things could have been very different, it could have been us marching in the opposite direction in search of peace.
Caroline Irby photography

In some ways the way I parent is a reaction to the way my parents raised me…

But in others it’s a continuation. My parents had the most amazing social life: as far as I remember they were out every night, and most evenings I was with a nanny. We are the opposite – very present for our children, maybe to a fault. But bed time is when a lot of the chat happens, and reading together, and I don’t like missing too many of them.

My brother went to boarding school when he was 8 and I was 6, and from that point on I think the dynamic of the family changed. I would not want to separate our children at such young ages – our two are totally intertwined: they can fight, but most of the time they are great together, very affectionate, and I would hate to rupture that.

There are definitely things I try to emulate about my own childhood

My parents took us on a lot of adventures, local and far-flung, and exposed us to all kinds of people and places. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and they gave us a long rein - they were not precious. I’m actually amazed at how far they let us go – as a teenager I travelled through the Sahara with one of my best friends. We set off with no real idea where we were going, and they seemed fine with that. I would struggle to be so hands off with my children! But they never once tried to stop me from working in dangerous places, and I am very grateful for that.
Caroline Irby photography

I hope my children...

Stay funny, and kind, with no sense of entitlement. That they’ll keep their sense of wonder.

I think poems give the best advice…

Here’s a line from Rumi I often think of: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’
Caroline Irby Photography

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who feels they’ve nailed the balance...

We’re all feeling our way. My choice was to be the main carer of our children during their early years. When we had just one baby, Laszlo, he’d sometimes come with me when I was shooting, and I’d edit at night when he was asleep (or not). No breaks! When we had a second child we had help a couple of times a week, but there only seemed to be small pockets of time for work, and that was sometimes frustrating. Now I’m able to work quite a lot again, and I have zero regrets about the time I’ve spent with our children - we’re probably going to live until we’re 90, there’s plenty of time for work. I hope!
Photograph by Caroline Irby

My identity since having children keeps changing…

When the children were tiny I felt pretty much all mama, now I’m a lot photographer, wife and freewheeling human again. I’m feeling fired up about work now and am enjoying that, but my identity is no longer totally bound up in work, kids don’t really allow that and actually it’s a relief!
Caroline Irby photography

Tell us a joke...

What happens when you play country music backwards?
You get your house back, your car back, your wife back.

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