Conor Beary grew up around gypsies. He has spent time with all different types of devils and knows a bunch of hard bastards. I asked him for some behind the scenes stories, details and explanations and he generously obliged.
How old are you and where do you live most of the time? What is your studio space like? Describe it.
I’m 28 and I live with my fiancé and baby girl in Berkshire, England. We recently bought and renovated a flat so I work from there - its a converted victorian town house, tall ceilings, white walls and wood floor. We ripped it all out and started again, its quite a large open area, big windows to let the light flood in, a fair amount of art on the walls, bookshelves. We have lots of plants around the place, and a few picked pieces of furniture.
Tell me about your project, "Devils". I'm looking for some kind of behind the scenes story...perhaps you tried one of the costumes on? Maybe you had a favorite Devil? How did you manage to capture all of the detail in their outfits? Is that a real Louis Vuitton monogram bag?The Devils projects started when visiting my finance’s family in Liberia. We had gone out there to visit for Christmas and I stayed for a little while to take pictures. I had no idea about Liberia before hand. I mean, I knew there had been a pretty bad civil war there for some time but had no idea about the place otherwise. I very quickly fell in love with it. I don’t like football but thought it would be a laugh to go and watch a game whilst out there.
At the match a devil turned up to the stadium and people started loosing their shit, there was a witch doctor who was already there who would bless whichever team he was being paid most by…but when the devil showed up it just all went completely crazy. My friend and driver Darlington started telling me about the Devils and the culture surrounding Juju and the project started from there. The next day we drove into the bush looking for Devils.
I don’t have a particularly methodical approach to taking pictures. It is always fairly unplanned and sporadic. The only thing I wanted with the Devils pictures was to be in the shade because the sun is so high and harsh. I also didn’t want a lot of things to be in the background to confuse the eye or take attention away from the devils costumes. In terms of how I captured the detail, I just used a nice camera - thats all, set it to f8 so everything is in focus. I don’t tend to overthink things because it can all get a bit confusing when you are trying to create… sometimes it looks forced and feels unnatural. Half of the time, with the Devils, I had absolutely no idea what was going on…so in those situations it’s just better to go with it!
You can’t try the costumes on, I don’t fully understand the culture surrounding it so forgive me, but I know you can’t do that. Many people believe that the costumes aren’t costumes, that they are spirits and dieties so in most cases touching the costumes is strictly prohibited. It is said that if you touch some of the female devils you will be paralyzed. Whether there is any truth to this I don’t know, but I know when dealing with others’ cultures it can be quite easy to cause offense. The devil worshippers aren’t the best bunch to offend. I don’t like to have favorites…could bring bad juju from the others :)
The Louis Vuitton bag…I always thought of the devil wore Prada. I’m not sure if it is real…could be!
In terms of background story I met one guy who was particularly odd, we had driven out into the bush to meet a few devils and word must of got around that I was coming, we were walking through the bush like over a swampy area and this guy comes out of the tress wading through the water with a razor blade in his hand. He pulls out the blade and starts slitting his tongue to bits, spitting blood everywhere - like trying to cut his tongue off. At this point, I started questioning my life decisions. Turns out he was a local witch doctor and wanted to show me some of his powers. Really weird moment.
What about the Gypsies series....any interesting stories there? Who are the two little girls with the bows and why does that picture look like it is from another century?! How did you achieve this effect?
I’ve been taking pictures of the Gypsy/Traveller culture for some time now. I find them to be a particularly interesting group of people. Where I grew up in England there are a lot of campsites, so I grew up around the gypsies. As the years went on I started to see more and more of them in the media and the representation of them that I saw on the tv, films, newspapers, etc. wasn’t what I grew up around. So I thought I would start documenting what I did know and then just stuck with it.
The two little girls are the McDonagh sisters. I took their portrait last year at Kenilworth Horse Fair. I didn’t do much to achieve the effect to be completely honest. I brought a plain white backdrop with me and was using a digital medium format camera. I think I shot it on f5.6… thats about it. I was asking people at the fair if they would be interested in having their portrait taken and their mum said she wanted one of the two of them.
Like with the details of the Devils outfits I really don’t try and get bogged down with the technical or methodical elements of photography. I didn’t have a set idea about what I wanted to create and similarly I had no control over who my subjects would be. Creating a particular aesthetic or effect doesn’t push me. The effect, if anything, is mainly the outfits and get up that their mother dressed them in that morning! She decided how she wanted to dress them and how she was happy with them being represented… I’m just there pushing the button on a camera.
I got kicked in the head by a horse the last Horse Fair I went to -that was a little gnarly. Completely fucking stupid actually. I woke up with my face in a puddle and a massive gash in the back of my head. On the bright side, word quickly spread around the fair that I was the non gypsy who took a hoof and didn’t die. Somehow, strangely, I earned loads of respect from the gypsies there and that is supposed to be good luck! At the time it didn’t feel very lucky, but I guess it should have killed me so, I guess it is!
After I got my stitches and later that night, I went to a pub and loads of the older gypsy guys started buying me pints and patting my head like a lucky omen… it was quite surreal. I got really pissed that night and I was supposed to be driving home, but ended up getting invited back to stay with a famous x bare knuckle fighter with he and his wife in their caravan….(in the spare room). I ended up staying with them for a few days, going to and from the fair with them. Since then he has become a very good friend of mine.
I found a couple of photos in your England section (on your site) that also have this old timey feel....it is a rare aesthetic for someone that I'm assuming is young. Is there an intentionality to this or does it just happen, is it just inherently your style?
I’ve never really thought about it like that. It may have something to do with the type of things I’m interested in taking photos of and also I’m a bit of a sucker for traditional cultural events. It isn’t intentional.
Also, many of the photographers whose work I enjoy tend to be older…maybe there is something that I’m unconsciously chasing. I’m not a massive fan of taking pictures in big cities because everyone has a habit of blurring into one. If you go out to smaller towns, people often have a little more character and identity (not always of course). I guess things are a little more dated in towns outside of bigger cities, less on trend… maybe that’s it.
Tell me about the fighters, the boxers in the Dave and the Lads series. Are they as tough as they look?
Um well yeah I guess, a lot of them are hard bastards. Not to say that they’re not nice people. They can just take punches like sugar in your tea. “Dave and the Lads” is a story following an x gangster, his friends and lifestyle. There is quite a mix of people in this series. Somehave and still are quite connected to the criminal underground whereas others are just guys who love a bit of a scrap now and then.
A large part of the story is bare knuckle boxing which is something that Dave hosts at his house. I would argue you have to be pretty tough to be a bare knuckle boxer - its quite a thing to put your body through.. so in short yes…they are hard bastards.
Who do you look to for inspiration? Are there any photographers, artists, creatives, intellectuals, movie stars, politicians that excite you?
I’ve got a lot of books, photo essays and photo books & really enjoy the creativity of a few fashion photographers (something I would be interested in pursuing as some point).
Otherwise, to name a few favorites: Saul Leiter, Tom Wood, Diana Arbus, Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark, Alex Webb, Martin Parr, Jocelyn Bain Hogg & Josef Koudelka. David Nash is an amazing sculptor and Kerry James Marshal’s paintings are particularly beautiful. Shane Meadows is my favourite director and our lord and saviour Luis Theroux is my favourite documentary maker.
You seem to travel quite a bit, where have you been and where will you go next? Where will you NEVER go again?!
Yeah I lived abroad for a little while whilst studying and after graduation. I spent a lot of time in the South of Spain whilst growing up, worked in Lesotho and then lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a short spell and Liberia more recently. I have quite a large Irish family that lives all round the world so I’ve been lucky to visit and stay with them a fair bit. Also, my parents took us to the States quite a bit when we were growing up.
I think I’m going back to the states this year as I’m co running a street photography workshop at the San Francisco Street Photography festival. I may take some more time traveling around at this time. I’m quite interested in looking into some of the groups out there who are involved with racial separation…white supremacists and black nationalists seem to be quite interesting bunches of people. Similarly, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for the Bloods and Crips, could be a project to look at while there!
There is a graveyard in the middle of Monrovia, Liberia. I went there once not knowing that it is a seething crack den…its the worst place I have ever been and nearly didn’t come out of it alive! I’m not going to get into the story but it was crazy stupid - I had a group of about 70 really angry crack users who got it in their heads that I was a white devil… like an actual devil.. there was a pretty overwhelming consensus that caving my head it was the best way to go about dealing with the situation. Luckily that didn’t happen but I don’t think I’ll be going back there again!
If you could take a portrait of anyone, anywhere.....who and where and what and how?
Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un, hands down. Not that I agree or disagree with his politics…he just seems like the forbidden fruit of portraits, plus he has a strong look. In one of his secret layers or on a ski resort somewhere would be perfect.
Or Charles Bronson…in prison I presume.
Images courtesy of CONOR BEARY
interview ASHLEY MUNNS
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