A PARTEEN-based photographer, who was given only months to live last March, has scooped an Ireland Involved Award for his volunteer work on behalf of Concern for the last 20 years.
Liam Burke, who set up the Limerick-based Press 22 photo agency with his business partner Noel Gavin in 1984, was presented with the International Development Award by President Mary McAleese at a ceremony in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham last Thursday night.
His work has propelled the name of Concern to a global audience over the past two decades, whether it was the stark images from the crisis in Somalia in the early ’90s or a picture of a local debate team in a regional paper.
His iconic photograph of a malnourished young boy on the shoulders of his brother was the key image used in a major fundraising campaign for the Ethiopia crisis in 1989, helping to raise over €1.8 million for its emergency appeal at that time.
He travelled to Somalia several times to volunteer his services for the organisation and was there to capture images when President Mary Robinson made her visit in late 1992.
Volunteering Ireland chief executive officer, Elaine Bradley, said, “The Ireland Involved awardees, like Liam, are ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They are people of courage, determination, passion and commitment, who hunger for justice and hunger for change. It is important that their stories be told to get the message out that our actions matter and that we can all make a positive difference in the world.”
Mr Burke dedicated his award to the ex-chief executive officer of Concern, Fr Aonghus Finucane, who died on October 6 last.
“I felt honoured and humbled to be nominated for a Volunteer Ireland Award. I was over the moon when I won the award. I felt so privileged to be on the same stage as so many other volunteers who have completed great work and achievements in their own organisations,” he said.
The last thing on Mr Burke’s mind was awards or gala functions when he was diagnosed with a serious form of brain cancer in early March. The prognosis was grim, as the talented photographer was told he could live between two and seven months, depending on the success of his intensive treatment.
The 53-year-old went into a deep depression for three days as he struggled to come to terms with his devastating diagnosis. However, he decided to fight the cancer with every positive cell in his body and in July, further tests came back negative.
He said he is grateful for the love, kindness and commitment displayed by his partner, Pauline, son, Sam and daughter, Liz through the ordeal.
On September 4 last, Mr Burke was discharged by from the Mid-Western Regional Hospital, Limerick following a series of chemotherapy sessions. Two days later, he was on a plane to Southern Sudan to complete yet another photographic assignment for Concern, chronicling their development work in three countries.
“I wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible and I wasn’t going to let my cancer get in the way of doing this project for Concern.
“When I came back after the trip, I was absolutely shattered and I had chronic fatigue for about six weeks. I only started to come around to getting my energy back last week and spent most of some days in bed.
“I took between 700 and 800 photographs for Concern in the three countries. With the advent of digital photography, a lot of aid workers have digital cameras.
“I know that people have volunteered to go on trips but I don’t know of any photographer who has taken photographs over a 20 year-period,” he said.
On the issue of aid, Mr Burke said he is angry with the Government’s decision to cut €45m from the overseas aid budget in July 2008 and is deeply concerned about the further proposed cut of €95m next year.
“€45m is a huge sum of money for aid agencies who carry out badly needed development work. All of this money would have been directed at improving the lives for the poorest of the poor,” he explained.
In 1984, Mr Burke was shocked by photographs of the death and destruction caused by the famine in Ethiopia. At the time, he was in the process of setting up Press 22, so he wasn’t in a position to help.
Four years later, an adopted baby girl had come into his home but she had to be handed back to her natural parents. This left Mr Burke devastated and he went into a depression until he “copped on” and realised the child had not died from famine.
A few months later, he was in Dublin and he went into the offices of Concern, where he met Fr Finucane and volunteered his help. When Mr Burke got involved in Concern in 1989, he assumed that the agency would only use him to do local jobs in the Mid-West. Six weeks later, he was on his way to Ethiopia for his first trip and 20 years later he has completed over 50 trips to Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Malawi, Iraq and Bangladesh.
His photographs were used for fundraising events, websites and international reports.