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Seamus Murphy and PJ Harvey’s Latest Poetic Collaboration

A new book, The Hollow of the Hand, combines Seamus Murphy’s photographs and singer/songwriter PJ Harvey’s poems. Murphy made many of the photos in the book while he and Harvey traveled together to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, DC, between 2011 and 2014. It is not their first collaboration. In 2008, when she was writing lyrics for the songs that formed her album “Let England Shake,” Harvey visited an exhibition of images Murphy had shot in Afghanistan between 1994 and 2004, titled “A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan.” She later sent him the album demo and asked him to shoot films based on its songs; he ended up making 12 films in all, one for each song on the album.

The Hollow of the Hand (published by Bloomsbury) is not Murphy’s first poetry book. He worked with Eliza Griswold, a  journalist and poet, on I Am The Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, a collection of poems by Afghan women (translated by Griswold) accompanied by Murphy’s photos.

We contacted Murphy at home in London to ask him what it’s like to work with poets. “It’s no different from collaborating with a writer or a journalist when it comes to the work I do and the work they do. They shuffle around with notebooks while I’m trying to look for pictures,” says the photojournalist, who has been honored by World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year.  Poetry suits his style, which is often metaphoric and allusive rather than illustrative. Even when shooting a news story, he says, “you have the information but you leave that at the door when looking for good pictures. If your head were buzzing with information, I think you wouldn’t take very good pictures.”

Harvey suggested working together on a project from start to finish after Murphy completed the films for the songs on “Let England Shake.” Their general idea was to look at cycles of conflict, history and power, and places that represent those ideas. They made their first trip together when they were invited to screen Murphy’s films at a documentary festival in Prizren, Kosovo; after the festival, they spent four days exploring the country. Harvey was also interested in visiting Afghanistan. In 2012, when Murphy had been in the country working on I Am the Beggar of the World, Harvey joined him for a week in Kabul. “I just reckoned if we kept it low key it would be ok,” Murphy says. “We stayed where I usually stay, which is with an NGO that I know and I trust. They didn’t know who PJ Harvey was; that was perfect.”

Explaining their decision to go to Washington, D.C., Murphy says, “It is the center of Western power, and Afghanistan’s and Kosovo’s histories and fate was determined very much by things that happened in Washington.” He adds, “You don’t have to go outside the nation’s capital to find there’s a lot of poverty and suffering that could be compared to third-world conditions.” Washington may not be an obvious subject for poetry but, Murphy says, “Why be obvious?”

Avoiding the obvious was his goal when he edited images for the book. At one point during the design process, they tried placing photos with poems. “It didn’t work, it was too literal.” Instead, the book flows from a group of photos to poems. Last year, Murphy scanned old negatives and slides he had shot in Kosovo and Afghanistan more than 15 years ago, looking for photos that would work in the book. “It’s a wonderful thing to do because you end up doing a totally different edit than you would have done at the time,” he says.

The book The Hollow of the Hand is one part of a larger project. Harvey recorded an album of the same name last year at Somerset House in London, where the public could watch through one-way glass. Murphy filmed the process for a documentary to be released some time next year, after the album comes out in April 2016.

The book is being released in the U.S. this week. For the book launch in the UK earlier this month, Harvey and Murphy participated in two evenings at the Southbank Centre Royal Festival in London, combining music, readings, a discussion with Murphy and a presentation of his images.

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