SNAP DECISION Olga Klofac started taking photos of her neighbours’ babies ‘and fell in love with it’.
Name: Olga Klofac
From: Czech Republic
Lives in: Charlestown
Occupation: Portrait photographer
It was summer 2004 when I packed a suitcase and together with my husband (then boyfriend) got on a plane to Dublin, and from there on a bus to Charlestown.
I remember sitting on the bus in a padded jacket and through raindrops on the window watching people hopping over the paddles in flip flops, thinking they were insane, it was 15 degrees! I would soon learn this to be a normal summer temperature in Mayo, and I too now wear flip flops in August – I’m now an Irish citizen after all.
We left behind two sets of parents, heartbroken of course to see their children leave for another country, something I only understood when I became a parent myself. But we assured them it would only be for a year. There were no smartphones 18 years ago, we didn’t even have a laptop, so the phone box on the square of Charlestown was the only contact we had with our families for a while.
It was lonely at the beginning, but we had each other, and soon started making friends through work. A fresh graduate from college, the ink barely dried on my master’s degree, I wasn’t sure what kind of job I’d like to settle in, so over the course of four years I tried a few different ones – retail, and office jobs, my last job was in Mayo County Council – before I got pregnant and never went back to employment again.
Once I had kids I knew I wouldn’t be happy to leave them in childcare all day every day. And as we had no family here that would help us look after them, I decided I had to start working for myself as well as looking after the kids.
How I got into photography was a complete coincidence though. My husband’s hobby has always been landscape photography, and one year I decided to buy him a ‘proper’ camera for Christmas, the perfect present! I don’t even know how or why I started playing with that camera myself, all I remember is that I started taking photos of the neighbours’ babies and fell in love with it. So I started practising on our kids, and on babies and kids of any parents that wanted some photos. They told their friends and those friends told their friends and before I knew it I was running a photography business.
It’s not easy for a blow-in to start a business in Ireland though. As an immigrant, you have no social capital. The longer I live here the more I realize how everyone is connected in a small town – everyone is someone’s cousin or they went to school together.
I was never an insider in those circles, I had no in-laws pushing for me and recommending me to their wealthy friends. I didn’t have four siblings who showed my work to all their pals. I was nobody. I don’t think people who have never left their small town realise how hard you have to work when you have no support network. No one is going to become your client because they know you; the only way you’ll get clients is if you’re better than everyone else.
As Steve Martin once said, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you’. So that’s what I did. Sometimes I have to pause and pinch myself when I think back to where I started and what I built and who I became, an internationally recognized portrait photographer with amazing clients who travel to the small town of Charlestown from different corners of Ireland because they love my work.
People ask me why I don’t move to Dublin, that it would be better for my business, but I like the quiet life here. We have several beaches within an hour’s drive, we don’t get stuck in traffic for hours every time we want to go somewhere, we hear birds singing when we open the bedroom window… maybe just the donkey that sings his serenade at 5am is something I’d happily miss, but jokes aside, it’s nice living here.
It is bittersweet to have two countries you call home, though, because you don’t feel you 100 percent belong to either of them. Here in Ireland, as soon as people hear my accent they ask me ‘Where are you from?’. Despite my Irish citizenship, I’ll never feel 100 percent Irish. And when I visit the Czech Republic, although I’m a Czech citizen too, I don’t feel I belong there either; there’s too much Irish in me now.
- In conversation with Ciara Moynihan.
What was the hardest thing about leaving the Czech Republic?
The hot summers.
What traditional Czech food do you miss the most?
I love to cook so whenever I miss Czech food I go and make it.
What’s the best thing about living in Mayo?
Having lots of beautiful beaches within an hour’s drive and not being stuck in traffic for hours every time we want to go somewhere.
What aspect of living in Mayo do you find difficult?
Having to drive to Dublin for certain services that are not available locally (Children’s hospital, airport that offers flights home…)
Where’s your favourite place to visit in Mayo?
Who’s the most famous Mayo person you’ve met?
I don’t care about fame when meeting people. There are more important things than how many fans and followers a person has.
What’s your most prized possession in the world?
Big fat folder of my favourite recipes that I’ve been constantly adding to since 1996.
What’s your favourite pastime?
Cooking, dancing, going for a massage – they’re the things I look forward to every week.
Where is your ‘happy place’ where you live now?
I strangely enjoy standing at the kitchen sink and looking into the garden when doing the dishes, there’s something therapeutic about it.
What’s your favourite guilty pleasure?
Buying my favourite chocolates and hiding them from the kids!
What phrase or saying do you hear most in Mayo?
Sum up living in Mayo in three words?
Tea and biscuits.