Ruth Medjber is a pal of ours who has shot a number of cover features such as Soulé (153, June 2017) and the new wave of trad (161, February 2018). She’s hosting her debut solo exhibition of music photography this month.
How did you first get into photography? What inspired you?
Photography was a childhood fascination of mine. My Dad used to sell camera equipment so I’d be surrounded by boxes of litmus paper and blower brushes to play with. Cheap plastic 35mm cameras made for great stocking fillers from Santa and it just sparked an everlasting obsession in me.
When did you fuse a love of music with photography? What memories have you of early shoots?
I was about 14-years-old when the penny dropped and I realised there was such a job as a “music photographer.” I used to work at these All Ages gigs called Blast in Temple Bar and I came across a music photographer there called Roger Woolman. I was amazed that he was shooting our tiny gigs on a Saturday afternoon and he could call it work! From that moment on I started lining up all the bands backstage for their ‘promo photoshoots’. I was definitely an overly confident teenager when I had a camera in my hand!
How did the connection with Arcade Fire come about? What did it lead to and what lessons did you learn working with a band and entourage of that calibre?
The Arcade Fire tour came totally out of the blue. I had always dreamed of an International band whisking me away on tour, but as I hit my thirties, I had kind of given up on it ever happening. I got an email one night from someone claiming to work for Arcade Fire. She said she was in New York and had asked U2’s management for recommendations of a good Dublin photographer. I instantly thought this email was total B.S., sent by a cruel friend as a prank, considering I’d never worked for U2 before. I didn’t even answer her email right away. I googled her a couple hours later and that’s when I realised it was legit and I should really mail her back!
Initially I was only supposed to shoot one night in Dublin. They liked the photos and asked me to shoot their three nights in Wembley. I jetted off to London with a belly full of massive butterflies. I must not have messed it up too much, as after that they asked me to shoot some European dates too, which meant I had a place on the tour bus and could really settle in to the tour and get to know the set. It was definitely the toughest learning curve I’ve ever climbed. They wanted hundreds of amazing shots night after night. You couldn’t pass off anything slightly sub-par, their creative director has such a great eye for these things. So each day I’d edit, review and try to better myself. I’d scour the stage for new angles, watch sound check every day and try to bring something new to my technique each gig. It was tough, really tough, I may have even rang home balling once or twice (I’m my own worst critic really!) but I’m grateful for that challenge. I had run out of challenges in Ireland, shooting the same venues for 16 years. The only bad thing about touring with Arcade Fire, is they’ve given me the touring bug. I want to do more!
What advice do you have for anyone keen on becoming a photographer?
RTFM! Know your camera inside and out. It doesn’t matter if it’s a second hand camera, or a few years old. Once it clicks it’s grand! There’s no need to upgrade your camera body until the old one dies in your hands. The best thing you can do is learn every single button and dial on it. It should be intuitive. Once you know the camera, get shooting. Shoot everything and anything, even if it’s not related to your dream job. I once did a commission shooting chippers for a whole summer. It was horrifically boring, but I learned a lot about lighting, composition, dealing with business owners and time management. I wouldn’t have learned any of that if I just declined the job and waited for something better to come in!
Can you tell us about the Women of Notes project and its aim?
Women of Notes is an ongoing personal portrait project that I launched in 2015. The first exhibition from the series featured female Irish musicians who I admired and respected like Lisa Hannigan, Wyvern Lingo, Saint Sister, SOAK, Mary Black and loads more. I started the project as I was tired of always being surrounded by male musicians at work. I looked back over my magazine commissions over the years and found that 90% of my subjects were male. It was very rare for a music magazine editor to send me to shoot women. So, I just thought I’d go do it myself since I knew that these amazing women existed.
WON will be back in 2019 and will not only feature female musicians, but also the women who produce, record, design, light, book, manage and basically run the music industry!
Any wishlist of dream musicians you would like to photograph?
RADIOHEAD RADIOHEAD RADIOHEAD (I figure if I say it enough times it might come true). I’d happily take any tour at the moment though, just to be back on the road. Oh, and Enya, always Enya!
What would you like people to take from this exhibition?
Music Photography should be fun and exciting. It should give you a little buzz and remind you what it was like to be at those gigs. Hopefully the exhibition will encourage folk to head along to some Irish gigs too. It’s massively important for me to represent not only the International main stage acts, but also our own talented musicians. If someone spots a HamsandwicH, Saint Sister or Lisa Hannigan shot and thinks “wow, that looks cool, I should go see them sometime”, then that would be amazing.
How important is balancing commercial work to ensure you can pursue your passion projects?
The thing about being a “music photographer” in Ireland is that it doesn’t exactly pay the bills. Irish musicians are mostly unsigned and slightly broke, but they’re also the ones with the freedom to choose their photographers and they can have a lot of creative input into their shoots. If I had my way I’d work with musicians the whole time, but seeing as I can’t charge them too much, I need to make ends meet with other means. Each month I do a few days of corporate work. I shoot events for big brands, or festivals for massive promoters, or portraits for book publishers. I charge the corporate people a corporate rate. I can then live off that while charging the musicians a more “musician friendly” rate.
Ruthless: A Decade of Live Music Photography takes place in the Fumbally Exchange from Friday November 23 to Sunday December 2. It features images of acts such as Metallica, LCD Soundsystem, Jay Z, Grace Jones, Leonard Cohen and Dua Lipa, as well as homegrown heroes like Le Galaxie, All Tvvins, Lisa Hannigan and many more.
Image: Jane McGarrigle