Tristan O’Neill and the jungle chronicles

Looking at UK club photographer Tristan O'Neill and how he navigated the burgeoning scene of jungle and D'n'B in the '90s

Four-on-the-floor rhythms, cartoon-rave-hysteria, and chopped up samples. jungle and hardcore swept through Britain’s dance floors with supreme force. Undoubtedly one of the UK’s most colourful subcultures, rave is synonymous with pictures of kids in brand-heavy clothing, with the clothes as bold as the basslines. Tristan O’Neill’s images are a truthful testimony of how sound and style were heavily entwined, with brands running the dancefloor as much as the DJs did. Work that chronicles an era in which the government seemed hell-bent on blunting the sharper edges of UK culture, and serving as a visual manifestation of how they failed in doing so. With an unparalleled archive of the time, it’s no surprise that O’Neills career was set in motion by one of the most pivotal figures in drum & bass and jungle: Nicky Blackmarket. This is the story of how a 19-year-old photographer, who hated late nights, went from surfing pirate radio to capturing one of the most defining moments of British clubland.  

Born in London and spending his childhood in Belgium, it was upon returning to the UK at age thirteen that O’Neill took an interest in cameras. Shooting everything he could, by the time he’d reached college he was skiving off classes to go to the library and read every book and every magazine he could find on photography. With gifts unrecognised by traditional channels at the time, O’Neill hated school but was building a skill that would soon have his name in almost every UK music magazine of the decade.

Rinse, Kool and Don – it was tuning into these FM stations during those formative years that O’Neill began to build a love for Jungle.

“I bought a little analogue radio and with the needle going up and down, we would mark on it every pirate station we could find. I think at one point there were about 30-40 little marks on that radio.”

But it was also the life that was unfolding beyond the airwaves that set the path for the sharp-shooter. Rave was beginning to sweep the length and breadth of the country, a mate of Tristan’s bought him a Fantazia New Year’s Eve tape, and he was well and truly hooked. Frequenting Blackmarket Records, a record store in Soho (run by producer and DJ Nicky Blackmarket), he was becoming increasingly more involved in the outskirts of the scene.

“Blackmarket records was a little basement in Soho, the walls and ceiling were sound insulated. Nicky Blackmarket was usually hanging out down there on a Saturday manning the desk, with heads like Ray Keith coming through and DJing. The sound system in there was massive. You’d hear a record in the best way you possibly could, it was like being in a rave down there. The first thing I remember buying was a Tom & Jerry jungle record [Marc and Dego of 4hero running under the “Tom & Jerry” alias as a side-project during the 90s].

The transition to shooting clubs and dancefloors came from his mate picking up a newsletter in the store that he claims was “literally just 2 pieces of A4 paper folded inside each other with no pictures”. It was for the club Labyrinth in Dalston lane, and he suggested O’Neill go and take pictures for them. That weekend heading to that club was the first time he’d gone on a night out, let alone shot a dancefloor.

“I actually remember not really enjoying my first time out at all, queueing for ages, hanging around a dodgy area with my camera under my jacket. There was a lot of anxiety for me. But thinking about it now, as soon as I got in there my nervousness kind of evaporated and the atmosphere helped it melt away. People would come up to me and start posing and it felt like being submerged in another world. Everyone was having such a good time dancing that I’d just kind of feed off that.”

Shooting for Labyrinth was the first step in his career as a photographer, but O’Neill was determined to shoot more. Discovering other club nights through flyers and newsletters in record stores, he got in touch with Atmosphere Magazine who promised to book him to shoot a night. Weeks and months went by with no word, and it dawned on O’Neill that he must have come across as some “random raver looking for free entry to a club”. In what he describes as a “eureka moment”, he realised he should just go to the clubs without a pass, sneak his camera in and take pictures so the magazines could see what they were getting. Waking up in the middle of the night, O’Neill firmed it to Leicester Square’s Hippodrome for the hardcore night ‘Orange’ which started at 4am.

“In hindsight it really is crazy that I ended up shooting nightlife, late nights are not intuitive for me at all and it doesn’t really fit with who I am.”

Hiding his camera under a big green puffer jacket, O’Neill mused on how he managed to get his camera through with the vigilant security at the door searching people for weapons. Once inside, he knew that he would need a review to go alongside the photos he was taking, claiming that “pictures alone are no good”. In a spell of great fortune, Tristan bumped into Nicky Blackmarket that night. Recognising him from the Soho store, Nicky agreed to write a review for him, thus strengthening his case enough to secure him the feature. O’Neill maintains that it was the kindness of Blackmarket that was instrumental in launching his career.

“If It hadn’t been for Nicky my photography career likely wouldn’t have been the same. I sent the review and the pictures down to Jay at Atmosphere Mag. He published it, and from that moment onwards I was taking pictures every weekend for the next 5-10 years in the D’n’B and jungle scene.”

Mixmag, DJ Mag, Ministry and Dream – O’Neill was committed to what he describes as an “obsessive” mission to shoot for every music magazine in the UK. Despite gracing dancefloors every weekend and his subjects being the literal face of an era synonymous with party drugs, O’Neill maintains that he stayed sober 98% of the time. Comparing club photography to war photography, he claims it is almost impossible to shoot anything decent under the influence.

“There’s so much you have to concentrate on. You’re taking pictures in the dark, people are moving constantly, lights flashing in all directions. You’ve got to think about focus, exposure, framing and timing… everything is against you. I got all my high and enjoyment from the crowd and from taking these pictures.”

Manoeuvring the dancefloor with dedicated skill and almost surgically precise timing, it’s no surprise that O’Neill preserved a clear head. Drawing his energy from his subjects, he tells of how his film running out was his version of a “comedown”. Whilst on a job, he stayed totally absorbed in the world of other people, so his film running out was his signal to go home.

O’Neill’s images show people getting totally lost in the moment and in the music, unafraid of the discriminating eye of camera phones and the murky world of social media . When asked if his view on camera phones was negative, his response was admirably humble for a club photographer, saying that more people taking pictures on the dance floor means more history is being documented.

“You can’t replace the brain behind the camera, because that’s what takes a good picture. You can’t replace iPhone photography with professional photography, but the upside is that someone might realise they are a good shot and pursue it. That and the fact there will be 10,000 more pictures of club history swimming about.”

It’s undeniable that we are in the midst of a jungle revival, following a general pattern that culture tends to turn on a 30 year cycle. This Amen breakbeat nostalgia fuelled by artists like Sully, Bakey and Coco Bryce, with Chase & Status leading the way back in 2019 with the release of “Return II Jungle” and a series of nights under the same name. O’Neill tells us that the first proper club night he’s shot for years was at Hastings Pier, with an invitation from Saul Milton and Will Kennard of Chase and Status.

“It had been a long time since I’d shot any nightlife. Towards the end of the ‘90s everything I was shooting was very house-y and I never really got properly into that. But going to this night was different; I loved it, I loved the music and how it sounded proper old school but also modern. The bass was amazing and the crowd was great.”

The evolution of jungle has now given way to artists like Sherelle bridging the gap between techno and jungle, and bringing in new elements like footwork. “It’s so amazing to see so many quality labels releasing jungle, with loads of new producers coming through” comments DJ Mantra on the growing heat behind this resurgence. The last few years have really proved that there is a lot of space for a bold new era of soundscapes to be grown from the fertile soil of one of the UK’s strongest genres. Despite the horrors of the last two years, adversities caused by Brexit and the pandemic have provided an opportunity for a fresh chapter in London’s clubbing culture. Many artists speculate that the restrictions on travel will allow the UK to place greater emphasis on nurturing its homegrown talent. But no scene can truly flourish without the physical manifestation of a dance floor, so only time will tell where our sound will go. For now we can only hope it takes us to somewhere not far off the explosive scenes of Tristan O’Neill’s unmatched archive of ‘90s clubland.

If you had to choose a song that takes you back to your time shooting jungle and hardcore parties what would it be? 

Either “The Helicopter Tune” by Deep Blue or “Give a little love” by Nookie.