Helen Sheehan is an Irish photographer. Based in Dublin, her photography takes her to many places beyond Ireland. Sheehan’s background is a fusion of photojournalism and fine arts' sensibilities forged in the context of attending Crawford Art College in Cork in the 1980s and the University of the Arts, London for her MA (2003-2004).
For two decades she has consistently returned to diaspora narratives and in particular to the experience of being forcibly displaced. In her latest work Responding to the family Tree, she turns the lens on her family history of emigration to America and their return to Ireland in the 1920s.
Her early work at Art school involved creating installations using photography, film and printmaking - exploring notions of time and sexuality; for this, she received a distinction.
Her thesis entitled Images of Women Through Surrealism earned her an internship in Venice in the late 80s at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection which enabled her to explore new media and respond visually to that enigmatic Italian city.
In 1992 she began to photograph the break up of three formerly multi-ethnic towns and cities in the Former Yugoslavia: Sarajevo, Vukovar and Mostar. This work forged a commitment to human rights issues. In 1993 she exhibited work entitled Sarajevo, Vukovar, Mostar with Amnesty International at the Galerie Skuc Ljubljana. In the same year, she showed at the Old Bull Arts Centre to critical acclaim with a review in the Guardian Arts Page(see review).
Sheehan also worked on commissions for various media outlets including Elle, Sweden; The Independent, London; and the BBC World Service.
In 1997 Sheehan was chosen along with two other Irish photographers for photographic residencies with Pépinières Européennes as part of the Cultural Festival L'Imaginaire Irlandais in Paris. During this period her work evolved into narrative portraits between Paris and London funded by the English Arts Council culminating in her first exhibition in the United States at the Daura Gallery, Virginia.
Her primary concern during that period was to highlight the futility of destruction of peoplesʼ cultural heritage and religious symbols. From 2000 onwards as her work and concerns have changed, a more poetic documentary style has evolved.
In 2004 she embarked on a series called Acceuil Étranger which narrates in book form the journey of a young Kabylie Algerian asylum seeker to France. In this series, she began to experiment with the use of family photographs and objects that became symbolic of 'the journey'. This work also involved going on the asylum seekersʼ journey back to the place of his birth, Tigzirt Sur Mer in the highlands of Northern Algeria.
One of the aims of her practice is to challenge the erasure of history, like a jolt or sudden interruption of the given. Her work acts as testament, using found photographs and her own photography to re-examine this past. This approach led to a major exhibition in Istanbul in January 2015, Armenian Family Stories and Lost Landscapes at the Depo Art Gallery which traced the memories of three Armenian families whose ancestors came from what is now Eastern Turkey, once Western Armenia before the genocide of 1915. She examined the re-emergence of the past through memory and went to their former towns and villages to photograph what remained. The work opens up a discourse between then and now and explores post-memory in itself. Her exhibition which received numerous reviews in Turkey, Ireland, France and Scotland was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon and Culture Ireland.