Artists have a way of sharing the unspoken. Each have their own medium that they communicate with, and within that, they allow us to understand something that was previously misunderstood. An idea, a person, or in Tina Claffey’s case, a place. She took her photography to a muddy, colorless world, and showed us that it was, in fact, anything but that. A walk through the bogs with Ireland’s foremost naturalist John Feehan, and Tina knew what she was meant to do.
She began her journey with photography developing images in a dark room at college, and when the digital world evolved, so did Tina. Black and white soon became color. It’s no surprise to me that she’s been able to replicate that journey in the world around her: finding color in a colorless world.
One conversation with Tina and the characteristics that have made her a brilliant wildlife photographer begin to make themselves known: a woman of sincere patience, grace, and honesty. Tina may not be able to tell us what the secrets of the universe are, but she certainly has been able to capture it.
From learning the in’s and outs of confronting a predator in Botswana, to giving gratitude to her miniature subjects in the bogs, Tina was born to look wilderness in the face, and with Portal, she proves that it was born to look back.
I sat down with her to discuss how life led her here, and how she went from someone who thought the bogs were a dangerous, colorless place to being one of the leading impacts in the world for their preservation.
Did you always want to be a photographer? When did the love of it develop?
I didn’t, no! I thought I was going to be a painter. I went to art college in Cork, and you did everything in the first module and photography was one of the mediums. It was pre-digital obviously. It was all black and white. We would be given a camera and go out and then we’d come back to the dark room and develop it there. I was hooked immediately. Watching the photos emerge out of darkness, it was magical. It was really addictive.
How old were you then?
I was 17 starting college.
Do you remember the first photos you took?
My first photos really were of people. I’d stop people, or I’d ask old people sitting on a bench if I could take a photo of them. A lot of portraiture, and architecture and that sort of thing. Art college was really an amazing way to learn photography through art because you were taught to think outside the box.
Where did you go once you graduated?
When I left, I worked in a place called the National Sculpture Factory, which was a massive warehouse that was dedicated to artists who were commissioned to do public sculptures, for roundabouts or on main highways. I had to document the art from its beginning in the warehouse till its installation. It was fantastic to get to know the artists and delve into their work. Then I got a job with a German photographer who did brochure work for hotels and advertisements, but fashion photography was his main thing.
How did you find him?
Someone mentioned that he was looking for an assistant, so I just called over to his studio. He said he would take me on for three months for a trial, but it was a really steep learning curve. Oh my God was it steep! I was in charge of all of his equipment. I made loads of mistakes at the start, like I would forget a basic item. He would really come down hard on me if I forgot something. But I learned so much from him, I ended up staying for four years!
So you made it past the three month trial!
Yes! He kept me on!
That’s amazing. What was the biggest thing you learned from him?
Patience. And I learnt—technical wise—everything from him. In college it was just the basics, but with him it was everything: how to use light, how to harness the light! He was using flash but he was only using it to fill in the gaps of darkness. He was really a master in that sense.
Did he ever do photos of nature? What leads you to wanting to take photos of the natural world?
No it was a lot of studio work, and fashion work both in studio and on location. My job was to load the film into the camera, number the rolls as used, and harness the natural light with the reflector or diffuse the sun with the diffuser on the model, while also making sure the models were all perfect and their hair was falling correctly. And then he started getting commissions to go places. We went to Tenerife for a swimwear shoot. We went to the Canary Islands. But then the key one was we went to Kenya to shoot wedding dresses! Wedding dresses on a safari! As soon as we landed I was hooked, I was blown away by the smells, the culture, the wildlife. That’s where the nature photography really began. The models wanted to stay at the hotel in between shoots, but I was with the staff going out into the village and they were showing me everything. I was totally immersed in two weeks.
How did you get back to Africa?
Well I started asking for work there. But of course they didn’t really have anything for me. When I got back to Cork I was on a mission to return. One day, I was out with my boss and he was reading the paper and he starts to laugh, and he goes, ‘Oh Tina, I found you your perfect man!’ He was reading this article about this guy who had just won Bachelor of the Year in 1999. His name was Graham McCulloch, and he was based in Botswana working in the safari industry. He was doing research on flamingos there. And I was like ‘He’s Irish, he’s in Africa – surely he can help!’ So I contacted the regional paper, and the guy that actually interviewed him, and he was very unwilling to give me his number, as you can imagine! He thought I was a stalker! Eventually, he gave me his number and I explained to him what I was looking for, and he told me to leave him my CV and E-mail and said if he heard of anything he’d let me know. I was all delighted. But I never heard anything for four months. And then he sent me a one line E-mail that said, ‘Are you still keen?’ And I was typing like, ‘Yes, please!’ He said, ‘I’m doing a PhD. on flamingo migrations, I’m based in a camp at the edge of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan and I need an assistant. Trinity college will pay for your flight, I’ll house you in my camp, but I need to know straight away. There’s a cue of five other people but I thought of you and I’m going to give you first dibs.’ And I said absolutely yes. In January I flew out. I told my parents I was going to go, and they were freaked out. I had very little money.
How did you raise funds?
At the time, The Gerry Ryan Show had the biggest listenership on 2FM. I called them and told them I was going to meet the bachelor of the year in Africa and I was going to take photographs. And then the producer of the show rang me and asked me more about what I was going to do. They told me I’d talk to Gerry that Monday morning. So I was like okay—biggest listenership—I went to the camera shop in Cork and I told them I was going to be on the radio and I said if I mention your name, will you help me out with equipment.
Did you have any of your own equipment?
I had the basics, but I needed a proper lens. This was all pre-digital. And they said, ‘If you mention our name on The Gerry Ryan Show, we will sort you out.’ Then I went to The Great Outdoors, same story, and they promised the same.
I know and then before I went on to the show, the producer pulls me and tells me I can’t mention any names, no advertising. I went on with Jerry anyway, and he was great to chat to, and intentionally sleazy in a funny way, he was like, ‘Oh you’re gonna meet the bachelor of the year, and you’re a single woman’ and all that. But towards the end he was like do you mind if we interview you again when you’re there to see how you’re getting on. And I said I’d love that, that would be great. He said thanks Tina we can’t wait to chat, and I said oh and I just want to thank a few people. Before he could even say anything, I said I just want to thank MacSweeny’s in Cork for sponsoring me with camera equipment, they’re the best camera shop in Cork, and the same for The Great Outdoors. And he was silent, and then he goes, ‘Tina, you’re a girl after my own heart. Did you get everything for free?’ And I said, well nearly! He was just laughing.
Did you get in trouble at all?
No, no there was no mention of it at all! I went back to that camera shop and they were amazing. They gave me second hand equipment, but it was a super set. An old Nikon camera with various lenses in its carrier, the whole lot. Same with The Great Outdoors. I was really sorted. And then I started getting traction, you know: Irish queen goes to meet bachelor king and all these big articles and stuff. Kodak got ahold of those and then they said we will sponsor you 100 rolls of film, and the processing is paid for. And off I went, on my own, on the 20th of January in the year 2000.
And you spent 10 years there, correct?
How was it when you got there?
Well, I was originally only supposed to go for three months. I knew as soon as I met Graham I would be fine, he was such a gent, really great. He picked me up and showed me their camp, nestled at the edge of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. He gave me a great introduction to how to respect nature, you’d barely know his camp was there. I went from a 9-to-5 job in Cork City, to sleeping in a tree surrounded by wildlife. He had a very small microlight, and my job was to go up in the microlight with him and take photos in the air of the flamingos nesting. I felt like I was in an Attenborough movie!
You were only supposed to stay three months, and you ended up staying for nine years! Did you continue working with Graham?
I ended up staying with him for a year, and then I actually came home for eight months to Ireland. I had an exhibition of my work from that period, and over that year I made a bunch of contacts from Graham so I had a job lined up.
What was that first job?
I was working for Unchartered Africa Safaris first. It was a learning curve again. I went from working with Graham to managing camps all over Botswana. My main work was within the Safari industry, but my mission was to take photos.
What were you first taking photos of?
The zebra migration, and the flamingos. Then we covered everything from elephants, to lions, to hippos.
How do you maintain safety when taking photos of these wild animals?
It’s funny when you’re in a car without windows and you’re driving and there’s lions literally beside the door, they don’t look at you as prey. They look at the people in the car and the car as one unit. When you step out of the car, everything changes. You then become part of the food chain.
Who walked you through what to do in those environments?
This is what really helped my photography. I was trained by the guides, because I would have to walk guests back to their tent at night and I had to be trained to read the bush, how to understand where you are. The first thing was just to stand and observe. Look at the tracks. Use your eyesight. Scan the area for movement. You have to use all your senses. There’s always warnings in nature. Birds are amazing at giving warning calls, as are antelope. And really, your gut instinct. You can feel it in your bones when something’s nearby. They taught me to observe in every sense of the word.
How do you capture a photo of a predator?
I’m in the car when I take photos of a predator. You would have a beanbag at the side of the car, and rest your lens on that. And you have to be silent. I’ve been in a car when a whole herd of elephants were passing through. You have to stay completely still. Elephants trunks go up, and they smell you. You can’t freak out. They are so easily spooked. Same goes for when you meet a lion, your instinct is to get out of there, but if you stay perfectly still, they get scared. I had mating lions right outside my tent once! It’s amazing, you’re quite safe in there. One strike of a paw and that canvas is open but once you’re silent and in that tent you’re perfectly safe.
What brought you back to Ireland after those nine years?
Well I got married over there. I married a tour guide, and had my son Tristan. But the marriage broke down. I didn’t intend to ever come home, but I just needed my family. I came back a little broken. It was really a difficult time, my son was only a year and a half. Really tough you know.
How did you lean on photography when you got back?
It took me about two years before I started taking photos again. I needed to heal. And I missed everything. I missed the wilderness, the people, the wild life. And to me here, there was no wildlife. It was completely silent at night. At night in Botswana there was crickets and frogs and it was like a huge orchestra at night. I missed the heat. I missed the smells. I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I was certainly heading there.
Is this what brings you to your infamous walk with John Feehan?
Yes! He was hosting a walk through the bogs, as part of heritage week in my home town in Birr (Co. Offaly).
What made you sign up for that?
I was just curious. It was advertised as ‘discover the wilderness of the bogs’ and I was like wilderness in Ireland, hmm okay, I’ll go have a look and see! The bog to me, I mean I never enjoyed the bog as a child, to me it was like a dead landscape. My dad had a plot and we used to go out and get some turf and bring it home. I always associated the bog with hardship and working hard. But this walk was a different story.
What was the story?
He brought us to a small bog, and there was a boardwalk where he took us to and gave us all one of these (Tina holds up a small magnifying glass). This is the one he gave me on that day. As he walked and talked, he was scooping up sphagnum mosses, and he encouraged us to look at everything through this lens. He was explaining that what we were walking on was alive, and then when he handed me one of these things (magnifying glass), I was like oh my god that’s mad! He showed us this sundew and I was like ah, that is insane. It just, it opened a door! It opened my eyes! I know it’s tiny, but there is a wilderness here.
Did you realize right then that you had to take photos?
I went back with my camera the very next day. But I had my regular lens, I didn’t have my macro lens yet. I wanted to capture what I could see through this. But I saved up for a few months, and got the lens and it all came together. I could actually see what I was seeing through this. I felt alive again. I started going for an hour, then a few hours, then I’d pack my lunch and off I’d go.
And you would go alone?
Bogs are notoriously dangerous and hard to get through – how did you navigate them?
It took a while, actually. I got to know a small little area of it, so I felt safe in that little area. But then I met John Feehan’s sister, and she walks that bog almost every day. So I met her and asked her if she would show me the route she takes. She was brilliant, she was like that’s red sphagnum, that’s yellow sphagnum, don’t step on that or you’ll fall down. She taught me really quickly, she said just follow the deer trail and you can’t go wrong. Even when I was with her I went down to my hip, and she just pulled me out and was like alright, come on now! It was a totally normal thing. What I do bring out with me now is a walking stick. It’s a third leg. The stick will tell you where to go.
What does wilderness mean to you? How would you define it?
A whole other world that’s existing around us.
How has taking photos of the bog changed your relationship to the natural world here?
The perspective I’m taking with the macro lens, opened up a world to me I’d never seen at all. All these lives were being lived at my feet, that I’d never known were there. I ventured out of Killaun (bog in Co. Offaly) eventually, which is still one of my favorite places, but each of the bogs I go to have a different kind of vibe really, there’s an energy without sounding like a complete hippy. There’s an energy with them. I feel like at this point, Killaun has accepted me as part of it. Even when I’m out there, I don’t walk through the webs, I walk around slowly. I’m like a sloth out there. If anyone ever went out there with me they’d be like what are are doing, you know?
Was there ever a fear aspect with the creatures in the bogs? Like the spiders and the insects?
Never. I must say. I have a love of spiders. They are so amazing to photograph. I used to be afraid when I was a kid.
When did you lose that fear?
Oh, I think Botswana knocked any kind of fear out of me. There was amazing spiders there, ones that you really had to be careful of. Whereas here we’re very lucky, there’s nothing life threatening.
Did you have a favorite season, or transition to shoot?
I’d have to say late August, summer into autumn. Because a lot of the summer species are still there, but the autumnal species are coming in. You can see things emerge and disappear and you can feel the whole cycle of life out there. If you go into the bog in late August, it’s just a sea of purple, and you don’t expect color like that in the bogs. I always remembered it just being brown, I never thought it was this kaleidoscope of color. Only when you look closely can you find those colours. It’s full of colour. But every season has something special to offer, like in winter when everything frosts over, and the ice forms over the bog it’s like a cubist painting, it’s all angles. It’s just stunning.
When you have all the photos, how do you identify what you’ve found?
Well, luckily, John Feehan lives nearby, so if I have a question I’ll send it to him and be like what’s this! But also, there are these amazing public identification forums on Facebook. They get back to you in five to ten minutes. There’s a whole team there that will identify something for you.
Have you ever taken a photo of something, and then had it identified to realize that you’ve found something quite rare?
Yes! I was out in Abbeyleix bog (Co. Laois) once. This is mad. I was in the wet woodland area, and I was coming out of there and I noticed a Caddis Fly resting on a leaf. At the time I was getting ready for my first book—Tapestry of Light—and I had the Caddis Fly larva but no adult. So I took a photo and didn’t think anything of it. When I got home I popped it up onto one of those forums and asked for it to be identified. I left to get a tea, and then when I came back there was two hundred comments, like ‘oh my god where did you find this? And where did you find the specimen?’ What it was, was a window winged sage caddis fly, which had never been recorded in Ireland before. Never. There was maybe two in the UK, and a handful in Europe. Which just shows the importance of the bog for these rare species to grow.
Do you feel the impact you’ve created in the preservation of bogs?
I think an image can tell a thousand words. I’d like to think my photography has raised awareness of what we have, especially out there. I encourage people to get out into the bogs, their local bog. Luckily, there is a lot more knowledge now of what we have and a lot more boardwalks being built so people can go out, because so many people do have that fear. I spoke at the COP26 in 2021. I had to give a fifteen minute presentation before a debate about the best ways to conserve the bog. My photos were there as a kind of visual treat for them to see what was going on. It was so nerve racking I have to say. I was very proud of being asked to do that.
How has your connection to Ireland changed since doing these projects?
I’ve fallen back in love with Ireland again. I made peace with it. It took awhile for me to make peace with being back here. We do go over back to Botswana, so I still get my fix of Africa, but I am very much content and happy to be back now. I found my niche. If I hadn’t come home when I did, I never would have gone on that walk, I never would have discovered what I did. I think there is a reason for everything. I don’t know what the future holds! But I trust my instinct, and follow my lens. It seems to be taking me where I need to go.
Looking at your new book ‘Portal’ and all you’ve accomplished, what has been the most rewarding photo you’ve taken?
One of my favorite images I’ve ever taken is of sphagnum moss frozen in ice. Its was taken at the height of winter, it was -4 degrees celsius. Absolutely baltic. I was stepping over a frozen bog pool and saw just a hit of green from the ice that you wouldn’t think anything of. But what I saw through the lens took my breath away. It was feathery bog moss, and it was frozen solid in this ice, but perfectly preserved, it’s limbs all outstretched and surrounded by oxygen bubbles. It looked like a galaxy. Like another world. It’s the essence of what I try to capture when I’m out there. A portal to another world.
Another one of my favourite images is from this one autumnal morning when I was walking, and I saw this tiny little shield bug covered in morning dew. It was so beautiful, I nearly cried. Its back was like a shield, and the dew looked like jewels that were embedded into that shield. It stayed so still for me. I took photos of it from every angle and it didn’t move, and I said thank you to it. I said thank you so much, and as soon as I did, it just ambled away. Really it was one of those special moments. I’ve had lots of those special moments, and it’s those moments I’m sharing in the book.
Tina Claffey’s new book ‘Portal – Otherworldly Wonders of Ireland’s bogs, wetlands and eskers‘ is published by Dublin-based Currach Books and available in all good bookshops across the country, as well as online.
Tina Claffey can be contacted on www.tinaclaffey.com