#BehindTheNoise: We shine a spotlight on Laura Mccullagh, Cape Town’s favourite live music photographer and music lover

Whenever Laura McCullagh rocks up to a gig with her camera in hand, whichever band is on the line-up automatically trusts that they are in very good hands. And rightfully so.

I met her a good eight years ago and I’ve always been in love with how she’s captured the bands I’ve played in. While I’ve known her for such a long time, I’ve never really known the woman behind the lens.

We meet up at Tiger’s Milk on Kloof Street, on a sunny Friday afternoon, and she orders an iced coffee. Having gone quite hard the night before, I play the hair of the dog game and order a beer.

I’d been looking forward to our date since we set it, so I jump straight into questioning her. She tells me about her childhood, “I was always interested in art — drawing and painting. And like from the youngest age, that’s what I was doing, and I was lucky to live in a creative family that always encouraged being creative.”

Laura’s gone through various artistic phases, first painting, then drawing, and then writing and illustrating her own comics with all her characters being animals. From there she dabbled in animation, with a particular love for music videos.

She explains how, because of her parents’ love for technology, she got to experiment with a lot of multimedia, “We always had a lot of technology in our house — computers and cameras and stuff, so when digital cameras came out we had a family digital camera. As a young teenager I got to take photos with that.”

Her 21st birthday present was, as she describes, “A decent DSLR that [she] could actually use at nighttime.” This is what got her into band photography. “I always loved music, and I was a real snob, didn’t know anything about local music, so every weekend I went out on Fridays and Saturdays and watched as many different bands as I could.” 

She talks about what being a creative means to her, “This is gonna sound pretentious but I think the common thread is that I would consider myself an artist and a story-teller.”

But there’s nothing pretentious about her when she tells me about her approach to photography, “I’m more concerned about the aesthetics of the final product than like a truthful, journalistic, unbiased representation, if that makes sense, but not like in a deceitful way. So I try to make things look as good as they can look.”

Regardless of the subject, regardless of the setting, her main focus is to capture everything in the most perfect light, “Even if the message behind something is sad or heavy or political, it can still be aesthetically pleasing, it can still be beautiful.”

Her iced coffee melts as she chats away, reminiscing about them good ol’ days when the scene was very alive and thriving, when everyone had blogs and there was more media — in heavily inverted commas — than actual audience members, “It was quite an interesting and cool time to, in some way, be involved in the South African music industry. There was a lot of cool stuff happening.”

Around mid-2011, when Tecla Ciolfi was still Editor at LMG, she reached out to Laura about using one of her pictures of Jeremy Loops, then very much up and coming. This sparked a great relationship and in no time, Laura shot her first magazine cover. She laughs incredulously and adds, “I had no idea what I was doing, and I was very much in over my head. I had like no people skills or anything. So it was a great experience, but it was very cringe-y also when I think about it,” she laughs. “And it was PHFat!”

She regards Tecla as having played a massive role in pushing her photography career, “If she hadn’t forced me to man up and to step out of my shell, I don’t know where I’d be now. I think she just has a knack for knowing how and where to push people so that they can improve.”

We talk about challenges on the job — restrictions on shooting international bands, venues with bad lighting, venues closing down, bands not having the support of publications that they once did, but what really fascinates me is her recollection of the coolest place that photography has ever taken her.

She completely lights up and says, “One of the things that stuck with me, I heard someone say that your camera can be your passport and it’s really true.” In 2016, one of her favourite bands, Kent — a Swedish band with a then 29-year legacy — announced that they’d be calling it quits and playing a final round of shows. By the time she’d read the announcement, all of their stadium shows had already sold out.

But there was one show in Kiruna, the northern-most point in Sweden, a 5000-people capacity show at an aeroplane hangar called Arena Arctica, where she could still get tickets. She acted the most fanatically she’d ever acted and bought herself both concert and plane tickets.

She emailed Kent’s management, an email she wrote in half decent Swedish, that she’d taught herself because of how much she loved the band, their lyrics, and Scandinavian music in general, and couldn’t believe that she was actually granted media accreditation.

I’m hanging by her every word as she paints a picture of this milestone moment saying, “Wherever you were at this thing you could see the stage. And the show itself was amazing, like insane production and lighting. I got to take photos and it was surreal. Afterwards they had like buses to take everyone back to the town and people were queueing and the Northern Lights were up in the sky, and I was completely losing my mind like, ‘This is the most magical night ever!”

Check out Part 1 of #BehindTheNoise with Helen Herimbi.

Check out Part 2 of #BehindTheNoise with Mantsoe “Pout” Tsatsi.