Ask children what they want to be and you’ll get an influx of creative answers. Athlete, actor, ballet superstar, artist. Yet, as one grows older and ends up studying business studies and is regaled by a well-meaning career guidance counsellor on the advantages of a degree in civil engineering, ambitions involving creating beautiful things wane. Not for Mandy O’Neill, one of the country’s most exciting portraiture photographers.
This Dublin-based visual artist graduated in 2005 with a first-class honours in Photography from the DIT and has recently commenced an MA in Public Culture Studies at IADT. Her work was shortlisted for the inaugural Hennessy Portrait Prize in 2014 as well as for the Julia Margaret Cameron awards in 2012 and 2015. O’Neill has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, most recently at Visual Center for Contemporary Art in Carlow, RHA Dublin, and the Hamburg Triennale of Photograpy 2015. We caught up with her to talk about her career in the arts.
Why did you become a photographer?
I have always been a very visual person – drawing, painting and making things from an early age. My first significant encounter with photography was on a multimedia course that I did back in the early nineties, where I had my first experience of working with black and white film and developing prints. I loved the immediacy of photography, the magic of the darkroom and the license it gave me to engage with the subjects I was interested in. These subjects ranged from friends to strangers I met in bars or on the street, to elements of the subculture I happened to be around at the time. Photography is a great calling card and a way into the lives of other people. It allows you to share experiences, which you might otherwise not have access to.
I went on to do a BA in Photography at the DIT School of Media from which I graduated in 2005. Since then I have exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, have featured in a number of publications and had my work acquired by both public and private collectors.
What drew you to the subject of the school?
I had worked with a number of previous projects involving young adolescents and children, which I particularly enjoyed. I’m interested in working with people in transitional states and there is a particular attitude or uncertainty with certain age groups that I feel drawn to.
When I approached the school it was with the intention of documenting the everyday experience of the children and working on a portrait series. I was not aware of the background story. The school has been accommodated in what were meant to be temporary prefabs since it opened in 1996. Since then they have been campaigning for an appropriate facility, for which they finally received approval in 2012. This was almost four years ago now and despite the passing numerous deadlines there had still been no move on a new building. They now face into yet another winter of freezing, damp, smelly and completely inappropriate facilities.
In spite of the hardships they endure the children are very resilient and have a wonderful ethos and attitude. I think my portrait of Jodie is an illustration of this. There is a combination of defiance and vulnerability, which is characteristic of the school as a whole and a response to a consistent cycle of hope and disappointment, which has been ongoing for so long.
Is it difficult to make a living as a photographer in Dublin?
It can be difficult to make a living as a photographer. It is very competitive and there are so many photographers out there now. I think the key is to find your niche, be really good at what you do and to maybe offer something different. It really depends on what area you want to go into and what you are prepared to do.
With the rise of camera phones, apps etc is it frustrating trying to operate as a photographer in that landscape?
I don’t find it frustrating and I don’t feel overly affected by it. Apart from the pressure I feel to be present on Instagram – to which I have so far resisted posting any images! There are people making really good work with camera phones and I think there must be great freedom in dispensing with cumbersome, expensive equipment and being able to produce at this level. There is of course a lot of rubbish as well. We can sometimes feel like we are drowning in photographs. There are so many photographers now and so many people making images that it would be easy to become frustrated or disheartened. I think you just have to block it out (or embrace it!) and do your own thing. The camera phone is just another tool, which you can choose to use, or not.
What advice would you give a teenage girl who dreams of a career as an artist?
I would say forget about the dream of a career as an artist and think more about whether you want to make art, what your interests are and what kind of work you would like to do. I think the work comes first, and the career, if you are extremely dedicated will come later. You need to be tough, resilient, and persistent and to really believe in what you are doing. You should to be prepared to have a second and hopefully complementary career (as an educator for example) in order to make a living, and be willing to work twice as hard as you might in another discipline.
So it’s not easy. You will face a lot of rejection, self-doubt and frustration but if you really want to do it you can overcome all of that. If you have something to communicate or express to the world being an artist gives you a platform to do that and there is great satisfaction to be had in that.
Mandy O’Neill is a finalist for the Hennessy Portrait Prize 2015 for her work Jody, pictured above. The winner will be announced tomorrow evening. Her website is www.mandyoneill.com and she’s available for portrait commissions.