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The Instrument is Not the Camera: Author Photographs by Will Govan

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Will Govan

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This piece by Will Govan, co- founder and director of The Moth, gives an invaluable insight into what it takes to produce a successful author photograph:

In the summer of 2011 my wife Rebecca O’Connor, our 3-year-old son Bruce and I drove to North Sligo from our home in Cavan to interview Dermot Healy for our arts and literature magazine The Moth. We had an unforgettably lovely time with Dermot and his wife Helen. Dermot was typically warm and cantankerous at the same time. I made the mistake of asking him a question just as he was entering the sitting room from his little library, and he bumped his head. ‘Don’t ever f***ing talk to me when I‘m going through that archway!’ he said. We eventually managed to salvage enough material from my very poor quality dictaphone recording of my conversations with Dermot on the beach for Rebecca to put together an interview.

In those early days I had more confidence in my ability with a camera. I had studied portrait painting at Heatherley School of Fine Art in London, but many years before I had spent half of a doomed politics degree messing around with my father’s old cameras – a Pentax SP2 and an Olympus OM1. These were both exquisite machines, and a wonderful introduction to the fundamentals of photography long before the digital revolution. Incidentally two of my portraits had been used as author photographs for the jackets of books published by Faber & Faber. I was devastated when in the late ’90s the cameras were stolen from my office in the East End of London. I couldn’t bring myself to look at a camera until Rebecca and I came up with the idea for The Moth and the need arose for original photographs to accompany our interviews. Our meagre budget allowed for a five-year-old entry level Nikon digital SLR.

The photograph I took of Dermot Healy outside his house in Ballyconnell is one of my favourites. I was very lucky with the light, it was an unusually bright day, but overwhelmingly I think the photograph captures the beautiful man, relaxed and in his element.

My interview with Dermot contrasts with another early interview, this time with Anne Enright. I was delayed on my way to Dublin due a road closure and I arrived twenty minutes late to find the author pacing up and down outside Bewley’s Café, our chosen venue. Five minutes into our meeting, I realised the batteries of my long since replaced dictaphone had run out and I had to scramble to a newsagent to replace them. When I eventually arrived back to the table, the understandably vexed Enright explained she was under pressure to get to an interview at RTE, so we had better get on with it. At this stage I was in such a state that all of the limited research I had done went completely out of my mind and all I could remember was that she had spent some of her secondary education in Vancouver. The only thing I could think to ask her was if she had seen any bears while she was there. Needless to say the interview was a disaster and the accompanying photograph taken under extreme duress was not my best. In Anne Enright’s subsequent correspondence with Rebecca she kindly said she had been a bit hard on me, but it was an important lesson in preparedness, and for that I will always be grateful.

I think my interview technique is a bit unconventional, in that I take a risk. I’m not mad about going into an interview having learned a lot about my subject because I think what tends to happen is that the interview revolves around that material. So what I would rather do is treat the interview as I if was meeting someone in a bar or café quite by chance. And I think by doing that you can learn a lot – certainly more than what you might find on the Internet. Writers who are interviewed regularly naturally enough tend to repeat themselves and, as interesting as it might be, that information can be found over and over again in the press. What I aspire to do is to to catch them off guard a little. I’m averse to the question and answer format. Similarly, I never tell people before I interview them that I am going to photograph them as well. And I try and choose the right moment in an interview, when the person is not too bored of me, to ask them if I can take a quick photograph. That takes them by surprise, but the nice thing is they haven’t prepared for it. They are not going into a studio and they are themselves. Hopefully I have made them feel comfortable and we have got on well and we are in a nice place with natural light. That’s what tends to work.

Recently I have branched out into taking photographs for authors independently of The Moth and although I can’t obviously achieve the element of surprise, the principal of making people feel relaxed in an environment in which they feel at home still produces the best results.

I have picked up some better kit since we started The Moth, but I am a firm believer in what Eve Arnold, the famous American photojournalist once said: ‘If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.’

(c) Will Govan

Some of Will’s author photographs can be seen here.

Just a selection of what people are saying about The Moth Magazine:

‘The Moth is an amazing magazine.’ Donal Ryan

‘No other magazine like it.’ Billy Collins

‘The Moth is a beautiful creature.’ David Mitchell

‘Exquisitely designed and choc-a-bloc with exciting new artworks and wordworks.’ Paul Durcan

‘The Moth is a rare literary gem.’ Dermot Healy

‘Ireland’s newest, and coolest, poetry magazine.’ Irish Times


About the author

Will Govan is a co- founder and director of The Moth [www.themothmagazine.com]. Some of his author photographs can be seen at www.willgovan.com.

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