From Ireland to Australia, Dara Munnis has made his way in music photography with a documentary approach that has paralleled his subjects’ paths from obscurity to success.

Tash Sultana. SCL, Centennial Parklands, NSW.

If you have any interest in in Australian music, you will very probably be aware of Tash Sultana’s spectacular rise to fame. And if you have seen a photo of her in ecstatic flight on stage somewhere in the world, chances are it was taken by Dara Munnis.

Munnis, who was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, has been building his career as a music photographer for seven years. In a tough, highly competitive field, he was doing better than most when, three years ago, he met the first of two Australian women who were destined to change his life. One of them is Sultana. The other…
Well, it’s best that Munnis tells the story himself (in his typically warm, lilting Irish accent).

‘In mid-2016 I was doing some work for a radio station in London when I met an Australian girl who stole my heart,’ he says. ‘I went to visit her in Sydney, we started a long-distance relationship and I ultimately decided to move to Sydney. She introduced me to Tash’s music.

Tash Sultana. Dublin, 2016.

‘Then in mid-2017, I saw that Tash was playing in Dublin, so I went to the show, made my connections and took some photos. I promised to reconnect once I’d moved to Sydney, and Tash ended up using a photo from that gig as a tour poster for the next six months or so.

‘Two months after I moved, Tash played at Sydney’s Hordern Pavillion and I was hired to shoot the show. Two months after that, she was back in Sydney for a festival performance, and I shot that and a series of press portraits, and I was subsequently asked to join her touring party.’

Since then, Munnis has accompanied Sultana and her crew on tours to North America, to New Zealand, on a European tour, and on headline and festival tours in Australia. Sultana worked (pre-Covid) on a one-month-performing, one-month-off basis, and at time of writing, Munnis was preparing to return to North America with her. Then to Europe. Then back to the United States…
‘South Africa and South America are in there too. I have a three-year calendar with her,’ he says. ‘And it’s still only starting. She’s just going to get bigger. That’s the way I see it anyway.’

Tash Sultana. Melbourne, 2018.

Witnessing bands on the road to stardom isn’t new to Munnis. He was once a musician himself, until photography intervened.
‘My parents both worked in the music industry and I started piano lessons at three years old. In high school I played in local bands and got deeply involved in the Dublin music scene, which, per capita, is one of the most vibrant in the world. With an old film SLR my father gave me and point-and-shoots, I started taking photos of my friends. Then I bought my first digital camera and that was when people noticed that some of my photos stood out from other people’s photos.

‘Eventually, taking photos of bands and musicians became full-time. I started my own business in Dublin and travelling the world on tour. I’m primarily known for live performance and creative portraiture, and tour diary and music videos, which I shoot with the same digital SLRs.’

The Coronas. Cork, 2017.

Munnis attributes his ‘edge’ to the approach he took right from the get-go, developing a natural, non-interventionist style more related to photojournalism than the contrivances of industry-driven rock star image-making.

‘Since the bands were all my friends, I had an inside look. Most band members don’t know how to pose, they don’t know how to look good. But they were at their ease with me. And even today, I find it’s best to keep people talking, to distract them from the fact they’re having their photo taken.’

When young photographers ask him how they can break into the industry, he tells them to ‘go to as many shows and photograph as many bands as you can, be easy to work with, and then one of those bands might become successful and take you with them’.

In his case, it was the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. ‘I photographed maybe 50 bands in Dublin – often for no charge – and the law of averages was that one of them was going to get somewhere. I shot a music video and a few portraits of Hozier before he was anyone. In the space of six months, he blew up from playing to 10 people to playing to thousands. When he hit the road in Europe, he brought me with him, and that put my name in front of other people.’

Hozier. Istanbul, 2016.
Ed Sheeran. Dublin, 2015.

Munnis has since worked for record labels, management companies, promoters, venues and magazines, involving acts including Ed Sheeran, Niall Horan (One Direction), The Who, Stereophonics, Kodaline and hundreds of others.

‘For a good while, I had a day job in IT,’ he says, ‘but when Hozier wanted me, I quit. I’ve had to do other jobs as well, photographing restaurants and food, fashion or whatever, to supplement my income. But 90 per cent of my time has been in music.’

Niall Horan. Olympia, Dublin.

So when Munnis packed up and moved to Sydney, how confident was he about picking up where he’d left off?

‘I was absolutely terrified,’ he says. ‘But it comes back to the same thing as quitting my day job. You have to make it work.

‘The first job I got in Australia was photographing in a nightclub, starting at 2am. It’s the worst job I’ve ever done. It had a list of requirements – only girls, only big crowds, and “cleavage, legs”. I lasted four nights at 60 bucks a night. But I had to do whatever I could to keep me going until something better came in.’

Which, of course, it did. As well as working with Sultana, he’s been photographing and filming acts including Sydney reggae fusion band Ocean Alley, which recently topped the Triple J Hot 100.

Snarky Puppy. Sydney, 2017.

‘The Australian music scene is in a great state of play, with all these acts that are killing it, and in totally different genres. Tash, Courtney Barnett, John Butler, Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever… Ocean Alley are going to be massive in the next year or so.’

Gearwise, Munnis uses two Canon 5D Mark IIIs with fast prime lenses: 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2 and 135mm f/2.

‘Like a lot of people, I started off with a cheap 50mm, and I always loved that lens because of its limitations. It makes you think more about what you’re doing and more considerate of composition. If you need to get closer, walk over there. As someone once told me, “zoom with your feet”.’

The lenses need to be fast because of the typical light limitations. ‘I have a flash, but it often takes away from the documentary style and is a last resort. Quality of light comes first. On stage, it’s whatever the stage lighting is. Otherwise, I might look for window light or whatever.

‘If you’re doing artists on stage, talk to the lighting director first. Ask them when they’re lighting the crowd. Do they have any special effects or pyrotechnics, and when are they happening? Is there any part of the show you think looks especially good? Give yourself every advantage possible to know what’s going to happen, then work out where to stand.

Gabrielle Aplin. Dublin, 2016.

‘I’m usually hired by the band, so I can avoid having to shoot from the pit in front of the stage, where there’ll be 20 people taking the same photos, focused on the singer’s face, which could be anywhere. I usually shoot wider to get some of the crowd and the room into it, to get some context, to get the atmosphere. And if I’m on stage, I hide behind a guitar amp or in the wings. I think it’s important not to interfere with what’s going on.’

For more photos, see Dara’s website.

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 80

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