Emma Swann

Founding DIY Magazine whilst still at uni, Emma Swann started a career that allowed her to pursue her two great passions, music and photography.

Photo by Emma Swann
Sleater-Kinney, by Emma Swann

Founding DIY Magazine whilst still at uni, Emma Swann started a career that allowed her to pursue her two great passions, music and photography.

Can you introduce yourself? Where are you based?

Hello! I’m Emma Swann, London-based photographer and founder of DIY, a monthly music magazine based in the UK.

When did you start taking photographs? How did you get into music photography?

I’d dabbled a bit with point-and-shoots, got a bridge camera while at university (which I quickly realized was not anywhere near good enough for live music), and finally delved into DSLR territory in early 2008.

While I was already working full-time in music journalism, it didn’t immediately click that I could shoot ‘for work’. It was after shooting the bands on our then record label that I realized I could combine my passions, and feature live music on the website. Then once DIY became a physical print publication in 2011, I was able to shoot more and more, eventually also shooting portraits.

What has your career as a photographer been like and has it taken you anywhere interesting?

It has taken me to many wonderful places. I have shot Glastonbury Festival a handful of times – try cleaning mud from your focus ring! – been to SXSW in Austin, TX, events in New York that meant I went backstage at Radio City Music Hall and was more recently invited to POP Montréal, which was a city I had always wanted to see. Traveling to photograph is my favorite part of the job – especially situations where I can wander around the town or city for some random images too.

How and why did DIY come about? What’s it like being a founder of such a successful magazine and platform?

I started DIY with a friend as something to do between university lectures neither of us liked. We bonded over a similar music taste and thought it’d be fun to write about some of those artists. It was originally a website, as we couldn’t afford to print it. Also being 2002, we had to hand-code each page from scratch! A lot has changed since then.

I mostly don’t think about it – but every now and then there’ll be a ‘pinch me’ moment, where I realize I’m stood or sat where I am because of something I did – not working for a company that already had that prestige – but creating that from nothing.

How big of an impact has photography had on your life?

Massive! From having posters of pop stars on my childhood bedroom walls to seeing how public names are portrayed, it’s always interested me. My uncle is an amateur photographer, and I can remember being fascinated by his process. It also means my parents have some great photos of me and my brothers around – something I try and pass on with my niece and nephew. Also, I notice an effect on my mental health if I go days without taking any photos.

Slaves Mad Cool, by Emma Swann

Which photographers have influenced you?

My favorites generally are William Eggleston and Stephen Shore – there’s something about exaggerated mundanity that grabs me. Whether they’ve influenced me or not I couldn’t say, but closer to home I adore Linda McCartney’s work, Annie Leibovitz is a legend too – and both were strong women in rock photography when I’m sure it required them to be much tougher than now. I also love Autumn De Wilde.

What makes a great image?

Spirit. I like to think there aren’t hard-and-fast rules: an image either grabs me or it doesn’t. And frequently I can sit next to someone who has completely the opposite view. It’s so subjective!

Have you got any great tips for aspiring photographers? What would your advice be to them?

Shoot! I get a lot of new photographers contacting me to shoot for DIY, and often it’s far too early. Concentrate on shooting before promoting yourself – you’ll often look back on early shoots and wonder what the hell you were doing. Find local venues who allow cameras – their rubbish lighting will also stand you in good stead for when the moody synth act decides they only want midnight blue!

What is it that you want to say with your photographs and how do you achieve that?

My aim is always to capture the person or people as they are, put a bit of their personality into it, whatever kind that is. Also, with music, it’s important to make the image match the sound. Or subvert it entirely, of course. So I try and make conversation – I’ve interviewed bands before, so using the same techniques to get them to talk about anything at all. It’s horrible having a camera stuck in your face, and musicians aren’t usually in it for the images, so anything to distract from that!

Live at Leeds 2015 The Cribs, by Emma Swann

What camera gear do you use?

Digital: Canon 5D mark III and 6D, 700-200, 24-70 and 16-35 f2.8 L lenses, plus the gorgeous Sigma 35mm and 50mmm 1.4 art lenses. I also have a couple of Canon EOS film bodies which I’ll use the same lenses with. I’ve also used a Fujifilm GA645Zi medium format rangefinder, and have a Bronica ETRSi with 75mm f2.8 lens. I’m increasingly using film for portraits.

What technology/software do you use?

Lightroom, Photoshop, and Silverfast for scanning. I have a Plustek 8100 and it’s been life-changing.

Do you consider copyright a problem and have you ever had a problem with people using your images without proper permission?

Oh yes. The first time I realized this happened was an early photo of a band called alt-J, which had pages and pages of results on Google images. I got some advice from a lawyer friend and sent invoices to everyone who used it. I got some horrible responses: my favorite was someone who said: “it’s not that good anyway.” He’d used it.

After I noticed the theft, I’d find more and more – and friends would pass on instances of people using my photos. I wrote a blog post explaining how it was easier not to steal because it’s SO prevalent, whether it’s my work or images I see that I know were shot by a friend. Working in editorial, it’d often be awkward emailing someone at a different publication about the usage, which has been the most useful thing about Pixsy: the difficult bits are done for me!

Any tips for music acts we should be keeping an eye on?

Fontaines DC from Dublin, Squid from Brighton, and Glasgow band Slime City are some pals who in past bands have had me chase them so much with a camera I was probably simply a human flash to them.

Where can people buy/support your work?

I’m at emmaswann.com, and @emmaswannphoto on Twitter and Instagram.

St Vincent, by Emma Swann

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