Khara sees the big picture
She’s known for capturing Northern Ireland’s celebrities on film, but photographer Khara Pringle tells Audrey Watson how World War Two inspired her to get behind the lens
Photographer Khara Pringle is famous for her imaginative portraits of well-known Northern Irish faces and glamorous fashion shots, so it's a surprise to discover it was World War II and not the pages of glossy magazines that inspired the Co Down-based woman to follow a life behind the lens.
“My grandfather James Pringle was a photographer for the Associated Press in Italy,” explains 36-year-old Khara.
“I never actually met him, but I found a box of photographs in my grandmother's house with loads of photographs of Dachau concentration camp — he was one of the first to be allowed in.”
During his acclaimed career, Irish-born Pringle covered the Blitz, the Allies' advance across Europe, the Korean War and the Hungarian and Algerian Revolutions, as well as snapping the biggest stars of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
“He had photographed a fascinating mix of characters, from war criminals to Hollywood icons such as Fred Astaire,” reveals Dundalk-born Khara. “As I looked through his pictures, I was hooked and realised that photography could be a great career.
“My grandfather was a great inspiration to me. He died before I was born, but his work lived on and I was fascinated by it.”
Khara began taking pictures at the age of 17 when her father bought her a camera, but admits it wasn't an easy profession to get in to — especially for a woman.
After moving to Dublin to study for a degree in visual communication, Khara began doing the rounds of the city's photographers asking for work as an assistant and admits it was difficult to get a break.
“Because there was a lot of heavy equipment to carry, it was very hard to persuade anyone to take me on,” she recalls.
“When I started, I approached all the photographers, but they just looked at me and said, ‘No way'. They thought that because I was a girl I wouldn't be able to carry anything, but this just made me try even harder.
“It took months to get a job and it was fashion photographer Barry McCall who finally took me on.”
After assisting McCall and other Dublin photographers, Khara moved to Belfast in 1994 to study for an MSc in future communication.
At the same time, she began working for local photographer Chris Hill before striking out on her own almost five years ago.
“It was a scary move,” she admits. “But I've never regretted it.
“Chris has been like a father figure to me, but if you work for someone in this kind of profession you feel very secure and almost a little lazy — you don't take risks and it becomes a nine to five. I needed to get the passion back.”
The solo move certainly paid off and these days Khara is famous for her pictures of local media and sports stars, including James Nesbitt, Paul Rankin and, famously, the Ulster rugby team, who stripped off and posed completely naked — all in the name of charity of course.
“That was such good fun doing that shoot,” she laughs. “It wasn't pornographic at all. It turned out to be very tasteful.
“I got my friends to do the hair and make-up and we had a great time.”
Luckily, she's never experienced any diva-like strops from Ulster celebrities: “I've never had anyone go mental on me or anything,” she laughs. “But I have worked with photographers who've gone mental and that was really scary.”
As well as photographing famous faces, Khara is equally happy taking pictures of ordinary people: “I really enjoying making someone look their very best.” And she says that the key to her success in this very competitive industry is that she doesn't put all her eggs in one basket and enjoys corporate work as well as portraits, fashion photography and advertising campaigns.
Now that she is established, being a woman in a very male-dominated profession hasn't been a problem at all.
“It's a bit like being a hairdresser,” she laughs. “Clients don't mind if it's a man or woman taking their picture, it's whoever makes them feel relaxed and makes them happy with the way they look.”
Last year, Khara hosted the first exhibition of her work at W5 in the Odyssey Pavilion, but despite her success, her parents still hope that she will eventually get a ‘proper job'.
“My dad's an English teacher and my mum's an accountant. Both my brothers have very good jobs [one's also an accountant and the other is a banker].
“It's very important for me to do well because my mum and dad would have preferred me to have a more secure career.
“Even when I had finished my degree they were hoping that I would go back to university and do something else. And at Christmas, my father said to me that it was a pity I didn't become a teacher and have photography as a sideline,” she laughs.
This desire to do well, has, by her own admission, turned her into a serious workaholic.
“I'm an absolute nightmare,” she laughs. “I start work everyday at 6.30am, or if I have to do a shoot, I'm up at 5.30am to load up the car and get a parking space. I don't stop until late at night.
“My mum and dad are very work-orientated and we were always taught that you wouldn't get anywhere unless you worked very hard at school and at whatever job you were doing.”
As well as being a popular fashion photographer, Khara is also now a style icon herself. Her easy-going vintage and bohemian dress sense saw her win the Most Fashionable Businesswoman award at the recent Ulster Tatler/Magners Light Style Awards.
And she adds that the award was a little light relief after a tough few months during which her personal and professional life underwent major upheaval.
“I separated from my husband Shaun last October and we're getting divorced,” she says, sadly. “It just didn't work out and it's been very difficult.
“We were together for seven years and are still friends, but I think I'll stay single for a very long time now,” she laughs.
“It all happened very suddenly. I had to move house and because I work from home, studio as well.
“I moved out on a Friday and my new studio was up and running on the Monday. It was a hectic weekend, but I don't have any regrets.
“I'm enjoying being single very much and it doesn't bother me at all.
“The only thing that bothers me is that I would love to have children and maybe that will happen, but I hate that at 36 years old, unfortunately, that choice may have already been made for me.”
For now, Khara is content with the company of her dog, which she says travels with her everywhere, and spending any spare time she has indulging in her other passion — playing tennis. And despite the break-up, she has no intention of heading back down south.
“Absolutely not, I love it here,” she insists. “All my friends are close by and my mum is from Armagh, so when I was growing up I spent a lot of weekends there.
“Dundalk is right on the border anyway so I don't feel like I'm not from the north.
“I'm not really into all that urban sprawl and living here there's beautiful countryside five minutes from wherever you happen to be.
“Northern Ireland is also a less money-driven society and I'm the sort of person that's happy to survive, be happy and not chase riches.”