Berlin is an open invite for photographers, a beckoning finger inviting everyone from
selfie takers at Brandenburg Gate, fashion shooters in Kreuzberg, and polaroid-
snapping hipsters in Neukölln. The vibrant city, pockmarked and mottled by its
variegated history, is a technicolour dream for everyone armed with a camera, where
we can choose from the trashy aesthetic of S036 Kreuzberg and the “socialist
classicism” of Karl-Marx-Strasse, from the bounty of lakes dotted around the city and
the cobbled pavements of Prenzlauer Berg.
But more than anything, it’s the population that makes up the fibre of Germany’s capital -this mix of people of different worlds, carving out their own niches and writing their own
histories in this wildly diverse city. The pulse of Berlin has always been dictated by its
colourful surge of people. But In such a tumultuous year, our streets have been devoid
of their customary action, with Berliners being encouraged to stay at home, and tourists
being restricted in their numbers, posing potential obstacles to street photographers.
But through a mix of determination and enthusiasm for his craft, Neil Hoare is a
photographer having something of a breakthrough year, with one of his photos being
featured on the front cover of Der Spiegel, and a surge of appreciation in the Berlin arts
scene. Over a coffee on Oranienburgerstrasse and a walk in Tempelhofer Feld, Neil
tells me about what brought him to Berlin, his approach to photography, and how we all
have it in ourselves to change the course of our lives and do what we love.
Neil’s photos are compelling – merging visual verve, eye-catching colours, and a sense
of fluidity. The Spiegel photo encapsulates this style – a Hasenheide rave in the
summer defined by its purplish, alien glow, and the otherworldly, dynamic nature of the
revelry being depicted. But equally engaging are his portraits, and Neil has recently
been working on Irish Creatives in Berlin, an Instagram series in which he photos and
profiles a talented range of Berlin-based Irish artists. Like many, Neil speaks with
affection for Berlin as his adopted home: an appreciative platform for an aspiring artist,
so different from Dublin, which he speaks of as relatively stifling in its attitude to creative
talent. But only as far back as one year ago, the notion of finding success with his
camera seemed very far from his thoughts. “I came to Berlin in 2017 and gave up the
photography thing” he says, to my surprise, instead taking on a series of “soul-crushing”
jobs in commercial photography and working nights in a bar. Such work was not on
Neil’s agenda when studying film production and photography at Coláiste Dhúlaigh,
Trinity College and Wolverhampton. After completing his Masters, buoyed on by his
love for cinema and ambition to make movies, he went to Winnipeg, Canada in 2008 to
teach film to at-risk youth, where he realised that he had something of a gift for teaching
and “letting people talk”. But his aspirations were depressed on coming back home to
Dublin, in which he speaks of doing years of unsatisfying work in the midst of the
economic recession, and he tells me of an unfinished film project in 2012, in which he
was meant to document his friend covering the gruellingly hard Tour de France cycling route. There was surely one upshot to the unfinished film, though – it was during production that he took a tour of mainland Europe and got to know Berlin properly for the first time.
Why do artists flock to Berlin? Neil tells me of his appreciation for the openness of the
city, the liberal attitude, the receptivity to new faces. And Berlin would ultimately be the
place where he “fell back in love” with the camera, and where his creative ambitions
were rekindled. Deciding to refocus on photography rather than film as an artistic outlet,
the camera afforded a form of therapy in the fraught start to 2020. “I started bringing my
camera everywhere, without the case and lens cloth. I’ve taken thousands of photos in
the last few months, typically a hundred photos each time”. Where could he take
photos? Bars and restaurants may have been depleted, if not completely closed, but the
parks were always there, and he found himself roving Tempelhofer Feld and
Hasenheide on many an occasion.
Indeed, it was in Hasenheide where he took the snap that featured in Spiegel. A typical
evening walk with his friend, armed with his camera, surrounded by huddles of
hedonists on a balmy evening in August, loud music blaring from all corners. Some
groups were rigidly adhering to social-distancing regulations. Others were clearly
overstepping the line, converging into huge groups, and the police were hovering on the side, waiting to maintain order: “at 2:30 in the morning all the lights came on, it was like an alien abduction.” Neil managed to capture the otherworldly surrealism of this night-
time revelry, and something compelled him to Instagram, and then “hashtag” the shots,
“just in case someone was looking”. Lo and behold, two people contacted him the next
day, one of whom was from Der Spiegel, looking for a picture to accompany a piece on
lockdown easing and illegal parties. So happy were they with the shot and the
distinctive way it had been processed, that they featured it on the front page of its 1 st
August edition in all its alien glory, giving Neil’s art an exhilarating nationwide platform.
Getting featured on the cover of Der Spiegel was no fluke. Seneca’s quote: ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’ comes to mind when thinking about the elements that gave Neil this break. A look at his work unveils an artistic flair, resting both on a
vibrant visual style, merged with a non-judgemental approach to the subject matter. “I
want to elevate the normalcy of a situation into something more ecstatic” he says, with a
nod to one of his film heroes, Werner Herzog. He sees himself as an “editor” as much
as photographer, and uses a Canon 5Dmk4 in his work, with which he takes hundreds
of shots before finding ones he’s satisfied with, which he then touches up with Adobe
Lightroom. He talks of the improvised aspect of photography, where so much resides on a confluence of light, mood and chance encounters. “You can’t play jazz with analogue” he says, with customary wit, in explaining his preference for digital.
Neil’s wit, gregariousness and self-effacement make him a charming interviewee, and
qualify as valuable qualities for a photographer wishing to “get to know” their subjects.
Indeed, his gift for words and conversation come in useful in his latest project, Irish
Creatives in Berlin, in which he pairs buoyant photographs of Berlin-based Irish artists
with highly readable biographies. What lead him to start this? “There are so many
talented Irish people out there. Membership of Irish in Berlin is 3200 people, I need to
tap into this”. This seems like a perfect, mutually beneficial scheme whereby Neil can
showcase his photographic talents, while turning the spotlight on the city’s artists who
haven’t been able to perform this year due to Covid-19. The portraits, depicting
filmmakers, producers, comedians and musicians are linked by the ease of their
subjects, the care that has been taken to capture them in their environment, and the
witty, journalistic accounts Neil captions the photos with. Besides the merit of the
photos, the series is a heart-warming and positive affirmation of the virtue of
collaboration in a world in which there is far too much fear, friction and competition.
Indeed, as Neil points out, the people he photographs “don’t want to be in a super
competitive environment. They want the chance to relax and collaborate”.
Two hours talking to Neil indeed turns out to be relaxing. As for collaboration, I get to
experience his methods first-hand, as he takes photos of me as we amble around
Tempelhofer Feld, chatting about everything from the Zum Goldenen Hahn Bar in Berlin to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Once we have achieved some degree of normalcy in society, he would like to put on an exhibition of his Irish portraits and do a separate
show of his more abstract photos.
“I’m doing something right. I’m taking photos for myself and no one else” he says, with
galvanising self-assurance. Coupled with his desire to “elevate everything”, the mantra
that underpins his approach to photography, I finish the interview enthused,
enlightened, and with a sense of optimism that transcends the miasma of uncertainty
and worry that shrouds this year.
You can follow Neil Hoare on Instagram @hoaremonal