Damien McGlynnThe Voluntary Arts team are a curious bunch - aside from our day jobs, we each have a different creative outlet that enriches our lives and contributes greatly to our sense of self, from Irish dancing and bookbinding to singing and embroidery.

In the first of these staff spotlights, we catch up with Voluntary Arts Information Resources Manager, Damien McGlynn to find out why photography makes him tick.

When did you first get into photography?

I don’t remember asking for one, but I was given my first camera for my 8th birthday. It was a 110mm that flipped open and had flash cubes. There were twelve shots on the first roll but I think I only had one flash cube (which meant 4 blasts). I used up the excitement of the explosive flash cube pretty quickly and completed the roll in a playground later that day taking action shots of my siblings flying down the slides.

Waiting for the roll to be developed and printed was always difficult. One hour photo was out of our budget. But when I was handed one of those envelopes, covered in sunny tourist stock images, with my blurry documentary shots printed 6” x 4” inside, that felt like an insurmountable achievement. I kept going through various camera models and progressed into darkroom development and digital photography while studying art in college.

What do you enjoy taking photos of and why?

During my teenage years and in college, I think I mostly just took photos of my friends, as most people do. I documented what we did and where we went. I got quite into street photography, having seen the work of Saul Leiter or Cartier Bresson while studying. It’s something I still love because it’s about studying people’s behaviour in public and how we interact with each other – noticing the little subtleties. I always worked in documentary photography because it felt more honest or real to me than staging studio shots.

I have always been a huge music fan and spent years going to gigs so it was natural that I ended up doing live music photography for a few years. I enjoyed this partly because it meant I went to even more gigs – often three or four in a week – but also because it’s a really challenging environment. You are quite restricted and have limited time (first three songs, no flash) and you have no control over the lighting or smoke machines so you have to be quick, alert and ready to catch an unexpected moment. It’s about as difficult as it gets but it’s hugely rewarding if you get even one shot that somehow conveys the indescribable feeling of being at a great show.

What type of camera do you prefer to use and why?

Like most people, I find myself using my phone far more these days. The quality of image you can get from smartphones now is so impressive and the speed and ease of it is so endearing. Having said that, I still love using my ‘real’ cameras because it feels like a totally different discipline. I have a beloved Canon DSLR that I bought in B&H (New York’s most amazing camera shop) a good few years ago and I’ve added different lenses over the years. A mix of quality lenses is as important as a decent camera body. I heavily rely on my 50mm for close-ups and portraits, my 10-20mm for wide angle shots and my 70-300mm for long-range zoom shots.

I still use film too and have a 35mm SLR and a medium format TLR from the ‘60s which is a lot of fun to use and creates incredible shots that have a look that you just can’t fake with Instagram filters. I remember my photography tutor telling me in 2002 that digital cameras meant that film would soon be a niche practice and I didn’t believe her but now it’s difficult to find places that still deal with film. It’s a shame because while I enjoy digital and the possibilities that come with digital processing, shooting on film is a unique experience.

Have you ever had your photos published or exhibited?

My live music shots were often published by music magazines and websites when I was working for them but they also made it into a number of exhibitions. A video I made of my favourite images was projected in the front window of a gallery in Dublin once which was really great because it felt like screening them to the passing public in the heart of the city’s nightlife was the most appropriate place for them. I worked on documentary projects in visual arts too which meant that my photos ended up in all sorts of places like posters, catalogues and even the Venice Biennale. Opportunities come along if you maintain a portfolio online and people are mostly very good at asking for permission to use your images. Mine have ended up everywhere from Edinburgh Fringe posters to coffee table books about architecture so you never know what could happen.

Which of your photos are you most proud of and why?

That’s a very hard question. I’m not very good at picking my favourites, which is why I tend to compile them into videos or similar to avoid having to whittle them down. I think sometimes my favourites are less to do with the technical achievement of the shot and more to do with the story behind the moment or the serendipitous nature of the split-second captured. I love my opportunely-timed photo of Jarvis Cocker jumping in the air and looking like the L in the giant neon PULP sign.

I’ll choose this one of Janelle Monáe for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the photo, like Monáe herself, looks like it has come from another time. It has a classic look to it and the perfection of her futuro-retro style just raises the image to another level. It was taken on a memorable night in December 2010. There was a huge blizzard and everything had gone into lockdown – no public transport and people in a state of panic. It was highly unlikely that the gig was going to go ahead and even if it did, would anyone make it to the venue (and home again) in these conditions? I trudged across town in the snow with my camera gear in blind hope. Amazingly, the venue was near capacity and Janelle Monáe and her band all made it. It was her 25th birthday that night and, with everything else working against her, she turned it into a monumental celebration. I remember her stunning performance when I see this photo and it reminds me how great music, and photography, can be.

Janelle Monae (c) Damien McGlynn
Janelle Monae - © Damien McGlynn

Have you got any useful tips for other amateur photographers out there?

I think it’s good to try a bit of everything to see what kind of photography suits you, whether it’s nature, urban, sports, portraiture or something else. You’ll quickly find what interests you. I love football so I tried doing photography for a local football team but it just didn’t excite me as much so I moved on. In general though, I think most people find matching their other interests with photography helps to keep them motivated and interested. It could be wildlife, politics, local community, history or your own family and friends that sparks your creativity.

Even if you’re using digital, I think it’s really important to learn and understand the principles of film photography as so much of this is replicated in digital cameras but doesn’t necessarily make sense if you don't have that grounding in the understanding of what an aperture is and what it does, for example. I’d also recommend making use of your local museums, galleries, libraries and arts centres which will almost always have some photography on show to inspire you and make you rethink your own approach.

#lovetoPHOTO is part of #loveto, a creative campaign powered by Voluntary Arts that each month celebrates a different artform and invites the public to get involved and share their creative passions with the world.

#lovetoPHOTO runs throughout July but we would love you to share your creative pics with us any time by tagging your photos on social media with #lovetoPHOTO.