2 years ago

Artistic License: Doreen Kilfeather


In her new exhibition “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft,” at Stone Step Gallery, DOREEN KILFEATHER’s photographs of children were inspired by a song from 1953 …

Doreen Kilfeather

What was the starting point to this exhibition and how did you become interested in this era?

The starting point for this exhibition is the same starting point for most shoots of mine – I love to make portraits. The images on exhibit are a selection from a series called “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” inspired by a song of the same name. In the 1950s an organisation known as the International Flying Saucer Bureau sent a bulletin to all its members urging them to participate in an experiment called World Contact Day whereby, at a predetermined date and time, they would attempt to collectively send out a telepathic message to visitors from outer space. The message began with the words… “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft.” In the mid ’70s, inspired by this event, the band Klaatu wrote a song with these words as its title.

I’d already planned to make a series of portraits with the children of stylist and good friend of mine Ruth Forsyth. I’ve photographed her children before so for our shoot I wanted to create something with a sense of narrative behind it. I decided to build the shoot around this song – for it to be influenced in some way by it and the emotion it evokes. In the portraits the viewer sees these curious young kids in a house by themselves. There’s no sense of an adult being present. One is prompted to wonder why are they there? what are they waiting for? are they looking for signs? I tried to capture a sense of playfulness coupled with restlessness, a sense of wonder and reaching out…


The song has its roots in ‘70s culture so that pushed us in the direction of vintage clothing – luckily the children’s mother, Ruth, is an avid collector of vintage children’s clothes. We also collaborated with one of the most progressive children’s stores in Ireland – Mira Mira. A treasure trove of eclectic, funky and ethically produced clothing.  We also thought about the meaning of the song itself – it’s all about love and peace and friendship and reaching out – from our beloved planet to whomever may be out there. Our need to protect this planet of ours has never been more critical. As well as reaching outward, we need to look inward. I want my kids to learn how to consume responsibly and how we teach them to engage with fashion is intrinsic to that. I want them to know it’s not all about the latest thing, instead it’s about appreciating without needing to possess, it’s about valuing the old and finding a new purpose for it in the present. The kids in this shoot were delighted with the pictures – they had fun looking for ways to combine the old with the new – and they learned to how think about their choices, both stylistically and environmentally.

Where was the location for the shoot?

We chose a house built by two architects who met and fell in love in Dublin in the 1930s. They built this house together in the spirit of sustainability, with materials built to last and improve with age. The whole house is built on a semi circular aspect – everything from the windows and doors to the trees outside were crafted to flow in that shape. The house is called Meander … isn’t that so lovely?

Is it easier to photograph children rather than adults?

Yes and no. I finish a kids shoot and I think – adults are far easier. I finish an adult shoot and I think kids are a dream. Each brings its own advantages and disadvantages. Small kids can be so damn fast – and often the best moments might be happening while the better light is the far side of the room! Adults will take direction so much easier and sit in the perfect light but then sometimes that’s at the expense of spontaneity. Whatever the age, child or adult, I find myself looking for the same thing – something that reveals something about the subject themselves, or maybe even something about myself. Most of all I’m looking to capture a feeling – the difficulty of finding it depends on the individual, not really on their age.

Can you share some simple tips for making a memorable portrait.

  • Learn how to recognise good light.
  • Don’t try to shoot a flattering picture but rather a meaningful one – one that makes you feel something.
  • Learn how to use your camera in manual mode.
  • Shoot often.
  • Make a print.

What sparked your interest in photography?

Initially it was seeing the portraits a friend of mine had taken of her kids. I’d never thought about it up until then – but I saw these three portraits and couldn’t stop looking at them. The kids weren’t posed, they weren’t doing anything cute, they were unsmiling, one had her back to the camera – but everything about the portraits spoke to me of connection, childhood, emotion and feeling. I then became consumed with the documentary style photography of Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, William Eggleston … every picture so skillfully captured – colour, form, composition, light. I guess they fed in to my love of cinema – each still image told an entire story. And I’m a sucker for a great story.

Where do you work?

I don’t have a dedicated studio. I think location can inform a portrait as much as the sitter themselves. For this reason I like to shoot people in places that are meaningful to them – places that speak of the sitter. For creative shoots I’m constantly on the look out for locations with interesting features and glorious light. The house in this shoot was one such place – the amazing light, the textures and tones and colours – all sublime. Locations like this offer a natural theatrical tableaux – pure gold.

Need To Know: Doreen Kilfeather’s exhibition “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” is currently on at the new Stone Step Gallery, 45 Booterstown Avenue, Dublin; www.stonestepgallery.com.

Penny McCormick

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