In April, second-generation Irish American Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, for his incredible and moving photographs of the aftermath of Hurricane Ike and the other serious storms of the hurricane season in Haiti. In a recent conversation with Irish America, Farrell discussed his Irish heritage and his experience of documenting a humanitarian disaster.
“My grandfather Michael Farrell came to this country around 1906 from County Longford. He married a woman named Annie McRobbie and raised 11 children in Brooklyn, NY, where he was the owner and operator of an Irish pub called Farrell’s Bar and Grill, located in Windsor Terrace to this day,” said Farrell, who grew up one of twelve children. “The bar  and its connection to everything Irish were always a topic of discussion in my family’s South Florida home, from its famous Irish-American patrons to its core Irish pub roots of being a great place to gather and tell stories.”
The most fascinating story in Farrell’s family history, however, is the story of his grandfather’s younger brother, Jim Farrell. “He went down on the Titanic and is quoted in the book A Night to Remember by Walter Lord as shouting ‘Great God, man! Open the gate and let the girls through,’ where a barrier was down and Kathy Gilnagh, Kate Mullins and Kate Murphy were being held back as the ship was going down.”
When asked whether he sees his work as art, news or both, Farrell replied, “I believe I’m a photojournalist (like many photojournalists) who tries to capture moments and tell stories and make them visually compelling. The photographs and experience in Haiti during last year’s hurricane season were the most devastating and important pictures I have shot during my career. Haiti had been relentlessly battered by those storms, and the destruction of homes and the incredible loss of life were stories that had to be told.” In the hurricane season of 2008, four storms, Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, killed nearly 800 people and injured an additional 600. Around another 300 went missing. Over 100,000 homes were ruined or damaged. Seventy percent of Haiti’s crops were destroyed.
“At the time I was overcome by what I was seeing and photographing, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it was important for people back home to see what the Haitian people had gone through,” Farrell told Irish America. “I was very humbled to win the Pulitzer Prize for such a devastating event, but I believe the recognition from the prize brought some added attention to the situation in Haiti, which is needed. Everywhere you look in Haiti there is an image that has to be seen.”
Farrell traces his interest in visual expression to a childhood injury. “I think my appreciation for everything visual came from an accident on Halloween in 1971 when I was shot in the right eye by a BB-gun and spent a week in the dark behind eye-bandages, and the rest of the month with one eye still bandaged. I believe subconsciously I spent a little more time looking at things, which led me to want to see how I could capture images on film.”