Design: Photographer Gillian Hyland

Posted March 25, 2019 in Design

Ahead of her appearance at Offset next month, Irish photographer Gillian Hyland discusses the experiences and encounters which shape her.

“Having a true intention behind your work is inspiring and a crucial factor to producing work with value”


You’re quite the polymath, bringing a background as a writer, stylist, set designer and art director to bear on your ‘image-making’. What has this journey been like and how importance is the prism of experience?

I was lucky and started working in the industry very young while I was still studying. A chance encounter with a journalist, who kindly offered me work experience, opened up the world of publishing and gave me a foot in the door at a women’s magazine. I had lots of energy so I kept suggesting features I could write and helped out with the fashion pages. Over time, my confidence and responsibilities grew, seeing my articles published and getting more involved with the fashion side of things was amazing, being in an environment where my ideas were heard and I was allowed to explore them had a profound impact. It instilled the belief that if you have a good idea, go out and make it happen. That is the drive which propelled my creative development and brought me to where I am today.

I have never been good at sticking to just one area, for me there’s always an overlap or interlinking of skills. I enjoy working as a team, understanding and appreciating what each person brings in order to achieve the best outcome. In my early twenties, I worked in TV and film, this hugely demanding industry taught me a lot, insights that I’d use a decade later.

It was easy to spot the good directors by how they ran a team and got the best performances from the actors. But what made them stand out for me is how they made you want to do your best, believe in the project and be a part of it. Having a true intention behind your work is inspiring and a crucial factor to producing work with value.

I didn’t have a master plan or really aim at being a photographer. Over the years I just developed in a way that lead me to that point. For me it makes sense and was a natural progression, a new challenge which I wanted to explore.

Words in Sight combined your poetry with image, with words acting as moodboards for your images – what degree of advance preparation went into the images accompanying the series?

The starting point of each image varies. Sometimes I will take a poem, or an emotional or visual aspect of a poem, and search for the right location so I can start to build that narrative. On other occasions I have found an amazing setting, and then look to see what poem lends itself to be narrated there. The process of casting the actors and sourcing the clothing and furniture and other details in the image is more organic, it starts to take shape as things go along. I have an idea in my head but it only formulates as each part starts to fall into place. On the shoot day I will have an idea of the composition but again once working with the actors this may change, as they’ll bring something of themselves to the story, which I can’t force until we’re there on the day shooting it. I like to plan in advance so that I have everything I need on the day to create a striking image. Having a clear vision means I can direct the team to we are all working towards the same idea, and everyone feels part of that journey.

Your mise-en-scène have been described as full of sex and desire, sadness and nostalgia – are these descriptions which sit comfortably with you?

I set out to create the stories in my head, I’d no idea how other people would relate or perceive those images. At the time I didn’t care, I was concerned with creating my own vision which was inspired by my past. The imagery was meant to be evocative and make the viewer feel something and question the story behind the photo. I’ve had people tell me what they see in my photography, this can vary drastically depending on the person and their point of reference, which is unique to the individual.

‘The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time, it expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.’ – Virginia Woolf

You shot Cate Blanchett for her recent performance of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other which ended its run at the start of this month in the National Theatre. Any tips for working with ‘talent’?

I had a mixture of emotions going into that job, thankfully I met Cate prior to the shoot day for a wardrobe fitting, and she was lovely, professional and patient. As we had the actors for a limited amount of time, I brought stand in models so I could prepare the lights and composition in advance and when the actors came on set I was ready to go. It can take a long time to get the lighting set up ready. If you’re shooting ‘talent’ their schedule is often busy, so when you have them ‘on set’ you are able to get the most out of it, and not waste time setting up.

Having worked on fashion shoots, ad campaigns and on commercials over the last decade, how you noticed changes in the demands and expectations of your profession?

There has been a shift with brands in the commercial realm to showcase real people and to represent a more authentic viewpoint. There’s an inspiring trend of highlighting women in the industry. Mainly the diversity continues to broaden to include a wider scope of ethnicity and gender. The demands and expectations from clients are higher as social media and other platforms now lead the way people engage with brands and imagery is shared and consumed at a faster rate. I’ve noticed a rise in photographers branching into film, something I am also exploring.

You have been extensively exhibited and picked up numerous awards. To what extent have you been alert to possibilities and sought out opportunities to create awareness for your body of work?

Having a series of photography exhibited and recognised internationally greatly increases your exposure and often, off the back of those exhibitions, you’ll have articles and other features on various platforms share your work. I always find it interesting which photos resonate with different territories. I really enjoy meeting other artists and exhibiting as part of mixed shows, seeing my photography alongside paintings and sculptures gives a new dimension to it. There’s no point making something beautiful if no one gets to see it, it’s valuable to hear what people think of your work and it can often encourage you to make more of it. It can be hard to ‘put yourself out there’ and not everyone will love it as much as you do, but I have found that as long as I am happy with the photograph it doesn’t matter so much what someone else thinks, everyone has different opinions and taste, keep believing in what you do, and try to push yourself to share it.

Any burning desire to do more work in Ireland?

I’d love to shoot a series in Ireland, I’ve been reading into Celtic mythology and other folklore, as I’d like to incorporate some of those fables into a new body of work. Weave the stories of the past into something new, it would be amazing to feature some of stunning dramatic landscapes of Ireland.

What does speaking at Offset mean to you?

I’m very excited to be a part of the festival, there’s a fantastic range of creatives giving talks, which I am looking forward to hearing. It’s a wonderful opportunity to discuss my process in more depth and share the work to date, I hope to engage with the audience to hear their thoughts and questions. There is a lot of buzz around the event and I’m sure it’ll be a fun few days.

Any advice for those sitting in the audience marvelling at what you do and wondering how they can enhance their own stature and work?

The one piece of advice is ‘talk less about your ideas and shoot more of them.’ Not every photo will be award-winning and often the outcome can be far from what you’d envisioned. I have often gone off with just a vague sense of an image, then as I start to research more into all the elements, such as the locations and casting, it gradually starts to take form, so by the time the shoot day comes around, I have a vivid clear image in my head of the direction I want to go. I chose to use my personal experiences, insights and emotions to help create narratives, everyone finds inspiration in different ways. Spend some time discovering what makes you tick, what has meaning and value and then use that in your work.

Offset is on at the Point Square from April 5 to 7. Tickets €55 (student)/€99 for day and €125-235 for weekend. See for a chance to win tickets.

Words: Michael McDermott


Three more to see at Offset

Lance Wyman

Wyman is graphic design royalty having bequeathed us with the 1968 Mexico Olympics identity among many other achievements. Now in his eighties, this is a chance to pay respect.


Victo Ngai

Compelling illustrations which reference comic book drawings, classic children’s book illustrations and the work of Japanese painters.


James Victore

Artist, author and activist, James Victore is an irreverent prophet for the creative industries and has twice exhibited at MOMA.



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