The story behind Jim Fiscus’ “execution” portraits for Ireland’s TG4

Shooting portraits comes with a certain level of responsibility to the person in front of your camera. That’s true regardless of the subject, but that responsibility can be especially weighty when the portrait you’re making is meant to represent a historical figure, and an iconic one at that.

Ireland’s TG4 has been broadcasting an ambitious historical documentary series on the seven men who were the signatories of the 1916 Easter Proclamation—”one of the best-known and most often-quoted summary of republican and nationalist aspirations and ambitions,” according to the homepage for the show, 1916 Seachtar na Cásca. All seven men—Thomas J. Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada, James Connolly, Patrick H. Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett—were executed for their actions, and the series attempts to examine their lives without the blur of legend.

To convey the gravity of what these men sacrificed in the name of their principles, TG4 and Publicis Ireland commissioned Jim Fiscus to photograph execution portraits of the actors who portrayed them.

Here, Jim talks about his experience shooting these raw, beautiful images…

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Photos by Jim Fiscus.

Photos by Jim Fiscus.

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“I went to Dublin to do these portraits. This was a plain, old-school portrait shoot—just me and an assistant. I shot with three lights and a Mamiya RZ67. To prepare, I read a bunch of Irish history and biographical material  on each of the seven individuals. The courage of these men was unbelievable.

I thought a lot about the mood of the set. We made it really quiet. And we brought gravel in from the actual jail where these men had been kept. I blindfolded the men and asked them to sit silently. I told them, ‘You’re thinking about how the formation of this new government and of this rebellion. You’re thinking about your family. And all you can hear is the wind and the call of the ravens in the air.’ I had my assistant march on the gravel to give the feeling of the soldiers marching. And then I said, ‘You have a son, and your son is 4 years old, and you won’t be here to see him. Your son will be alone. You’re leaving your wife behind.’ These men would start to cry…

I was thinking about how it feels to dedicate yourself to something to the point of sacrificing all. So I directed them so that they would feel the raw emotion of the moment of forfeiting your life for a cause.”

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Photos by Jim Fiscus.

Photos by Jim Fiscus.

Photo by Jim Fiscus.

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