A conversation with Niamh Barry about the female gaze, crowdfunding a solo exhibition, and her upcoming photobook.
“My personal work revolves around exploring queer topics,” Niamh Barry tells me, taking a first sip of her flat white. “I also do street photography and portraits of fellow creatives in Dublin. I’d say my work is very soft and personal, regardless of whether the photographs are for myself or for a client.”
While Niamh has been working professionally for just over a year, a love for visual art was always in her nature. “When I was younger I used to make stop-motion Lego movies, recreate scenes from The Hunger Games, and write my own scripts,” she laughs. As a teenager, she stumbled across film photography videos on YouTube. “When I saw their work, I was like, ‘that’s the feeling I want my images to have. That’s how they look in my head.’”
While studying in Trinity, she decided to buy a broken secondhand film camera and fix it up. “Something told me it was worth investing in,” she smiles, reminiscing. “I still use it today.”
“The summer after my second year, most of my friends went on J1s and I moved home to Cork. I felt a bit stuck and lost so I started taking photos.” After a few months of practice, she decided to submit her favourite shots to Dublin University Photography Association’s bi-monthly exhibition.
“The feedback was insane,” she says. “People were really supportive and encouraging. It was the first time I felt like I had found ‘my people’ in Trinity.” The society and the support system that came with it further nurtured her love of the medium, inspiring her to start a photography Instagram.
During her third year, Niamh was studying abroad in Boston and visited New York City with her camera in tow. The shots she captured reflect how inspiring she found the city. Shot on Kodak Gold, the collection depicts a sun-dappled Coney Island, vintage cars backed by sprawling city buildings, and neon-lit launderettes at night.
In the summer of 2020, during a brief respite from lockdown, she planned a trip to visit friends in Dublin. “In Cork I felt really disconnected from the queer community. I decided to do a call-out online to see if anyone was around for me to take their portrait.” Once again, the responses were overwhelming. “I think I shot around 15 or 20 people, but I could have kept going if I had more time and money.”
The project became Queer Hearts of Dublin, a portrait series documenting the many facets of queer identity in the city. Crucially, she included a self-portrait. “At the time I wasn’t really out. Putting my photo in was my official way of coming out to the world as a queer woman.”
As we chat, I’m intrigued by the role that social media has played in her career. At 23, Niamh is part of the generation of creatives who learned, honed and shared their skills online – particularly during the standstill of the pandemic. Like many other Gen-Z artists, Instagram proved fundamental to growing her profile, selling prints, and finding subjects for her photographs. “Instagram definitely helped me make things happen more quickly. I also have no patience,” she grins. “So when I get an idea, I need to go for it.”
In January 2022, Niamh began thinking about her next project. “Lockdown made me think a lot about space—where I feel comfortable and where I don’t. It’s difficult to find spaces for queer people that don’t revolve around alcohol, and I struggled with that. I started chatting to my friends about these emotions I was having and got inspired.”
With Ireland beginning to open up, she started thinking about the possibilities of an exhibition. “I had never done a project where I had to think about physical space, to consider where people would walk around and take in the work. I wanted to challenge myself with that.”
The managers of her photography studio, Block T Studios on Bow Lane, suggested she host the exhibition there. However, the space wasn’t purpose-built for shows, meaning she would have to build the walls herself to hang the art.
The project was quickly becoming costly as well as time-consuming. “I picked up more hours at my job and sold prints, but it wasn’t enough.” She decided to do what comes naturally—harness social media. In February, she posted a GoFundMe to crowdfund €700 towards printing, construction and film development. “Within a few days, we had the full amount raised with people still donating. I had to shut it down!”
The exhibition was titled No Queer Apologies, with the introduction describing it as “both an act of solidarity and a call to action.” The photographs are a mixture of colour and black and white, making up a moving patchwork of Ireland’s queer youth. Experimenting with space, bodies and semi-staged moments, the project feels like a fitting step forward from her first project.
Over the course of four hours, 500 attendees passed through the doors of Block T to enjoy the art, live music, and mingle in a primarily LGBTQ+ space. “Everyone said it was so nice to talk to new queer people. Things like this need to happen more in Dublin.”
“The exhibition was one night only, but I felt it deserved a longer lifespan.” Niamh tells me. “A photobook felt like the best way to honour it.” She began working with designer and collaborator Yosef Phelan to tell the story in book format. “It’s my first photobook and a big step in my career. I love how it’s an accessible way of spreading the message – it can be shared around and live on someone’s coffee table forever.”
This time last year, Niamh was preparing to exhibit Queer Hearts of Dublin in Hen’s Teeth. Since then, she has shot for Brown Thomas’ 2021 Pride campaign, been named one of RTÉ’s 2022 Upcoming Artists, and received The Arts Council Agility Award grant for an upcoming project. It’s exciting and awe-inspiring to watch the high-speed journey she’s had so far. “If you don’t get the opportunities, you have to make them yourself,” she tells me.
When asked what advice she has for emerging creatives, she says: “Women and non-male identifying people struggle to be assertive. It’s intimidating to ask for help, whether you need advice or to raise funds for work. But I feel like most people are really receptive! If you believe in what you’re doing, other people will too. You have to reassure yourself that you are worth it, and that your art is worth it too.”
You can visit Niamh’s No Queer Apologies exhibition and photobook launch in Hen’s Teeth from 26-28 May.
Words by Kerry Mahony