Jenny snaps up golden arts project

Young Suffolk photographer Jenny O’Neill is a young woman on a mission. By day the former Claydon High School student works in the commercial division of a Cambridge bank; at night and weekends she can be found wielding a camera, capturing dramatic shots of some of the region’s leading bands.

After coming up with some impressive photographs at last year’s Ipswich Music Day, and then at Latitude Festival, the 23-year-old has been appointed the official Ip-art photographer.

She admits she is overjoyed at the news, and sees this as a step towards turning a passion and a hobby into a paying profession. “I started taking pictures of bands because I am really into music and I still really love taking shots of gigs and music events, because I love capturing that sense of excitement; but on the other hand I feel I want to progress, expand my horizons and explore new opportunities, and Ip-art is a brilliant way of doing that.” She said that she had been commissioned to provide a photographic overview of the two-week event – to capture the colour and diversity that makes up the annual Ipswich arts festival.

Jenny has come a long way since she first picked up a camera as a sixth-form art student.

“I was doing an art project, and for reasons I can’t quite remember now I decided to recreate the famous Beatles Abbey Road cover as part of a collage which made up part of a larger work. So I got hold of an old camera and shot my friends walking over a zebra crossing.


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“I just got a feel for it. There was something about looking through the viewfinder and getting a sense of being able to compose a photograph. After that I was hooked.” Her desire to improve her photography and to build an impressive portfolio has meant that she is not shy in coming forward and asking for privileged access from promoters.

Networking, keeping your word, emailing shots to the band, their management and the PR firms are all important in getting access and developing a relationship with the people you are photographing.

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“For example, I always photograph the support acts and send them shots, because you never know who is going to make it. If you develop trust when they are on the way up, hopefully it may translate into access when they hit the big time.”

She said that occasionally bands come back and ask to use pictures. “There’s a guy called Jersey Budd, who’s up-and-coming. He was a support act at Cambridge Junction. I emailed him the link to the pictures and his manager came back and asked to use a photograph. I foolishly didn’t ask for money, because you don’t when you are trying to make a name for yourself. That in turn led to an invitation to cover a gig at the Waterrats in London. I took some photos, one of which they really loved and ended up getting used everywhere. So I was really pleased with that.”

Talking to Jenny, you get a sense that she really loves the music. There is a sense of missionary zeal when she talks about capturing that perfect shot of a band or a singer on stage.

“I started simply because I loved the music. I love listening to bands and I wanted to capture that energy, that excitement when people play.

“What I try do is capture on film that perfect moment that we all carry when we have been to the gig – that mental image of how the stage was, how the lights looked, what the band were doing.

“What I try to do is try and capture how it actually was.”

She has learned to always take her camera with her. The few occasions she has left her camera at home during a gig has resulted in her seething in frustration when a perfect photographic moment presented itself on stage.

“Locally I always have my camera with me, but it’s the bigger gigs, when you can’t get a pass, that has me enjoying the gig and then seeing something that I would have loved to have captured on film. For example, I saw Kiss at Wembley Arena and it was impossible to get a pass, and I just saw hundreds of shots that I would have loved to have taken.”

She has no secret formula for what makes a great rock-gig shot. “There’s no one thing. I just know it when I see it. They may just strike a pose, they may be doing something interesting or the lighting could change and alter my view of the scene. It could be anything. You just have to be prepared to seize the moment and take the shot. Blink and you miss it.”

It’s clear Jenny is something of an opportunist. That feeling is born of her confidence as a photographer. She is her fiercest critic, binning or deleting hundreds of shots that don’t meet her exacting standards.

“I am really picky with my own work because I want every little bit to be right. If the lighting is slightly off then I won’t use it, even if the person is doing something interesting.”

Getting access is the key to getting great shots. This is what led her to being invited to become Ip-art’s first official photographer.

“Last year I approached the people running Ipswich Music Day, asking if I could have a pass to get beyond the barriers. They then came back to me and said would I take some pictures for them. So I covered a couple of events for them last year.

“Then this year I had an email from the Ip-art organisers asking if I would be interested in covering the whole Ip-art festival as official photographer.”

Her plan this year was to focus much more on the people having fun, rather than just looking at the acts on stage.

Photography and Jenny are clearly perfect companions. There is a symbiosis at work. “Ever since I first picked up a camera in sixth form I loved it. In fact, that first camera I used was older than I was at the time, but there was something about photography that just clicked.

“I don’t have any specialised photographic training. I have just learned by doing and by looking at the work of other photographers.

“I love the work of a photographer called Danny North, who works for NME. He is so talented his photographs are breath-taking. The exposure and the way he captures the lighting is just fantastic.”

She tries to incorporate traits found in all the best work she studies and combine them with elements of her own view of the world to create something that is distinctive and the quality that will get her recognised.

“I think why my work is becoming popular is that I try and capture the person. Instead of shooting just a singer or a guitarist, I try and capture on film something of their personality, of who they are: what they bring to the stage as a performer.

“I try and capture their natural expressions.”

She says you need to have the respect of the acts that are performing. You can’t start bombarding them with bursts of flash, so you are reliant on stage lighting and fast film speeds, as well as expensive lenses which can cope with the low light levels to be found at most rock gigs.

“Because it is so difficult, when I capture a really good shot, say a singer in a really good pose, then I get a great thrill out of it – a real buzz.”

Although Jenny would love to translate her adoration of photography into a professional career, she recognises it is a tough world to break into – particularly music or showbiz photography.

There are already a lot of keen, hungry snappers out there, but she hopes the fact she takes great pictures and works hard at keeping the bands informed about what she is doing, keeping them supplied with images, might one day give her the break she needs.

At the moment she often works for free, just asking for a byline to get her name known and hoping the quality of her work will lead to paid commissions.

Such commissions have started to trickle in, but picture editors are reluctant to work with people they don’t know. Still, her work at the Thetford Forest concerts and Latitude festival got published in a leading online magazine, which has already translated itself into more work.

“It’s a case of reminding them you are there and available – coming up with ideas and making things happen for yourself.”

Unfortunately, the necessity of a day job has meant that her time for photographic work is now mostly limited to evenings and weekends.

The economic down-turn in the banking sector meant her job in Ipswich disappeared and she was relocated to Cambridge. This also meant a domestic move from Ipswich to Stowlangtoft, outside Bury St Edmunds, which has cut down on the number of gigs she can make in the evenings. “I do enjoy my job. It allows me to use another part of my brain and working in the commercial sector of the bank and taught me a great deal about running a business – although, sometimes, I do wish I could just get out there with my camera.”

Her favourite haunts are The Steamboat and The Swan pubs in Ipswich. “They’re great because they provide much-needed exposure for local bands. It’s so important. For bigger gigs I love the UEA and The Junction in Cambridge. You can get up close to rising bands who are just about to make the big time. Then there’s Latitude, which I have done for the last two years.

“Latitude is a world away from anything else I have done, simply because it is so big and has the biggest bands around.

“When I am at Latitude I am shooting constantly – pretty much from the moment I get up to when I go to bed. If I had to choose then I do prefer the festivals, because you feel that you are in the thick of it. I was at the Keane gig at Thetford this year and the atmosphere at an outdoor gig is electric.”

She said working for a magazine helps enormously when it comes to getting photo-passes. “I now work for an online magazine called Drowned in Sound, who are quite well established, and that certainly helps when applying for passes – although having said that you are competing with other photographers and magazines for a limited number of passes. The best solution is for the picture editor to apply for you.”

Jenny is hoping that her work covering the Ip-art Festival will help her establish herself as a professional photographer. Full programme details for Ip-art, which runs until July 11, can be found on www.Ip-art.com

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