Next time you’re out and about, and see a girl coming towards you with a camera, don’t be alarmed – it’s probably Rachel McCarthy, the creator of the new Humans of West Cork Instagram page. Martha Brennan reports
ONE young amateur photographer is setting out to tell the stories of the ‘extraordinary, ordinary’ people of West Cork through an online platform, by stopping people she meets and asking them about their lives.
With some inspiration from her father, the late Paddy McCarthy of Ballinadee, Rachel set up an Instagram page to try to give a voice to the everyday people in our lives, who may be a lot more extraordinary than they think.
Her Humans of West Cork page is based on the well-known Humans of New York account, that explores the lives of people stopped by a photographer on the streets of New York. Rachel was told about the page by a family friend and realised that there were a lot of opportunities to create something similar in West Cork.
‘Our friend Emma Galvin told me about the page, and convinced me that I had potential in photography and to give it a go,’ Rachel said. ‘I researched it and thought “this is amazing”. I love to chat and there are so many interesting people around here. I just knew there was an opportunity to capture something special.’
Rachel first became interested in photography during her time in college. She was given a second-hand camera as a gift while she was studying horticulture at CIT, and ‘started messing about with it’.
She soon realised her passion for taking simple images without add-ons, especially of people. The Humans of New York idea was a perfect fit.
‘I started by taking a trip down to Bantry and just walked about trying to make conversation with people. If something they said triggered me I would take out the camera and explain what I’m doing,’ Rachel said. ‘Most people are delighted to chat and we end up talking forever. They’ll light up and tell these amazing stories and I find that so exciting.’
Rachel said that some older people she stops are especially willing to chat, as they may have been cocooning during lockdown. ‘When Covid hit people couldn't get out and about and talk to others, which is so enjoyable for some people. I chatted to one woman who was taking care of her mother and couldn’t leave the house for so long and it was lovely just to see her smile.’
Rachel’s biggest inspiration for the page came from her father, Paddy, who passed away in May. ‘Dad always had something to say and he had so many amazing stories. Now, especially, these stories mean so much to me and my family and I just think it’s so important to get everyone else’s stories out there too,’ she said.
Of course, Rachel’s first post on the page was a photo of Paddy, smiling in the sunlight with a drink in hand. ‘Everyone should have a Paddy McCarthy in their lives, and some already do,’ Rachel wrote underneath the photo. ‘I want to give a voice to everyone’s Paddy McCarthy.’
Rachel said that she wasn’t expecting the page to blow up like it did, gaining over 1000 followers in the first few hours. However, she said she doesn’t care about how popular it becomes, as long as she can share people’s voices somehow.
‘There is so much value in sharing people’s stories and letting them know that they are valued and that they are extraordinary,’ Rachel said. ‘It’s about so much more than just a photo.’
Rachel’s brother Thomas set up a fundraiser shortly after Paddy passed away, which has raised over €32,000 for Pieta House. The siblings are working hard to raise awareness about the importance of mental health, especially in the farming community, while taking care of Paddy’s beloved farm with the rest of their family.
‘Mental health is a huge thing,’ Rachel said. ‘Behind people’s masks there is always something going on and I want people to know that they’re heard, what they’re feeling is ok and normal, and that others are struggling too.’
‘The brain is a muscle and we need to work on it. It’s just like other parts of the body. We go to the gym and work our arms and legs, so why is there such a stigma around working on our mental health? It’s up to my generation to break the taboo around it.’
Rachel hopes to one day make a book with all of the stories she is gathering so that people who don’t have social media can read them, and hopes the idea encourages people to share their stories – not just with her, but with anyone willing to listen.