Neil Thornton is a man who needs little introduction to the good folk of Derry and the north west region.
His ‘Derry Faces’ series and stunning landscapes he uploads on an almost daily basis onto his Facebook page have resulted in a flood of friend requests from Derry people at home and abroad.
So much so in fact that he long ago reached his 5,000 friends capacity, with thousands more requests coming in.
Neil hails from Abbot’s Walk in the Bogside, and was born in 1966. “The year England won the World Cup. I don’t remember but they keep reminding you, don’t they?” he quips.
The 47-year-old says growing up in the Bogside provided unique opportunities for a boy with an interest in taking pictures.
“It was mad so it was down there. We were in the forefront of it all. I was talking to a man that’s older than me, he was saying people thought that was for life, all that injustice for all, you just thought that was the way you were going to grow up. It’s far better now.
“I always took photos when I was young. Old exposures 24, 36, you had to send them away to England to get done. They were dear here. I started out taking photos of the riots years ago. But you were nearly getting killed then, the Brits on patrol used to chase you and all. I’ve buckets up there, big plastic jobs upstairs full of photos.
“The first cameras I used was the wee long ones with a green coloured glass flash on it. All wee stupid cameras, I never used anything major.”
Neil said that many people who know about his pictures expect him to be carrying round large cameras with a tonne of equipment in tow, rather than the small compact job hooked on to his belt.
“It’s just a wee camera that takes good clear photos. During the Fleadh and all people were saying, ‘aw, no camera with you today?’, and I was saying ‘I have a camera’, and they were saying, ‘aw Jees happy days’. If I had to have a big camera I wouldn’t be bothered then, it would do my head in.”
Neil has travelled far and wide over the years, but says if he could chose anywhere at all to live in, he would stay put.
“I’ve been round Europe inter-railing three times, been in New York, Florida, Jersey, Isle of Man, everywhere. With USIT, I went all round the place. I was 16 when I first went inter-railing. I was in Youthways at the time. That gave me the travel bug then. We went to Denmark, Holland, France, Switzerland, Luxemberg, Germany, Austria. It wasn’t easy, we just had to be patient when we got to places, the hostels were packed out a lot of the time so we just had to lie in train stations and all.
“I took photos there too. Some sights in Austria, and all that, Innsbruck, Salzberg, you get your eyes open. I remember when I was young going on the train and thinking in Italy, jees there’s people working! Boys working on the railways! I thought everybody just went on holiday to these places. I always remember that.
“I love taking photos in Derry and Donegal. The nicest place I’ve photographed is down round Dunree and all. I was in Galway Bay, I was everywhere, and Dunree is the best, see down round there and Mamore Gap and all, that is the place there.”
Neil said that Derry was special because of the people and the place.
“It’s a lovely city. It looks really, really well, and the Peace Bridge is a good asset. I love that, going over three nights a week. Me and the wife (Dolores) used to walk over but it’s far better now with the bridge. Everybody goes away and they want to come back again. I was the same too.”
Neil said one of the nicest side-effects of his Derry Heads series is that if a person he has a picture of passes away, relatives often get in contact to say they are happy to have Neil’s portrait of them as a memento.
He said that generally people have become less camera shy over the years. “People don’t cross the street as much now, there’s a lot more people would say ‘aye ‘mon get me photo done’. The say. ‘Our such-and-such is in New York she’ll see the photo of me on your Facebook’.
“I was talking to a boy only back from NY three weeks ago, and he says, ‘You’ll not believe it but we are all sitting in a flat in Manhattan all going through your photos on a big screen TV’. All Derry boys, all from Galliagh, four or five guys from Galliagh. He goes over to them every year or two for a bout a month. He says we all sit and go through the photos, the craic be’s 90.”
Another side-effect however is when happy couples separate, and they ask for their pics to be removed.
When not snapping away, Neil follows the fortunes of Celtic and Derby F.C. with his four sons Kevin Barry, Gerard, Kiefar and Callum.
“They’re all big into the football. They know everything about football, they know more than I know.”
Speaking about his Facebook profile’s popularity, Neil added: “I never knew it would go so big. What I noticed you have ones coming up during the Fleah from different things, I be walking up around the Walls, and this boy’s going ‘Neil’ and I’m like ‘what about ye?’ and they’re like ‘I’m on your Facebook’.
“They love it, it reminds them of home. That’s why I would never take it off now. “It’s only a bit of craic, doesn’t even take up much of my time, It keeps me going so it does.”