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In a new series showcasing work made by photographers in lockdown*, we will be spending time with those who found ways to create new images against the backdrop of a pandemic. Editor Harry Rose spoke with photographer Conor Beary on zoom, to find out more about his latest body of work ‘Dogs’ and the people and places he prefers to photograph.
*Dog’s was produced during the lifting of restrictions of the first national lockdown within the UK. Social distancing was in place throughout.
Before we get into your latest work made in lockdown, I wanted to start with your project called Gypsies which has an interesting parallel to Dogs. There is a perception and stereotype of this community which has been put out there by tabloids and the media, what was your experience compared to a show that seemed exploitive like Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?
I grew up in an area where there are a lot of settled gypsies and travellers. I saw a lot of glamorised stories in the papers and media, which is nothing like what I’ve grown up around. I understand that there may well be negative parts of the community and traditions that the media love to talk about but there is also a lot more to a community and culture. I’m a strong believer there are positive and negative aspects to every community and culture, it's all in the eye of the beholder.
How did you start making images with the travelling community?
What got me into photographing the Gypsy/ Traveller community was when one of the key members in my area of the traveller community died, there was a huge funeral in the village. I didn’t have my camera on me, but there were thousands of people there. I went to the grave the next day where they had wreaths placed. In some Gypsy/Traveller communities it is tradition to have really personalized wreaths, so if the person who died loved Mars bars they would have one made. I took some photographs of them and took them to the widow, she really liked them, we had tea, some KFC and spoke about horse fairs.
I guess it showed a level of humility and sympathising with her and the grieving community.. A camera is really intrusive, and I guess there's a higher level of trust needed by the people you went on to photograph.
Yeah, like you said with Big Fat Gypsy wedding, that did a lot of damage and there were a lot of people worried about coming into their space. Like if I turned up at a horse fair with a camera and nobody knew me, people would think either you’re a tabloid photographer or creating a negative documentary. A few years ago whilst shooting this project, a TV network got in touch. They wanted me to be a fixer for them to get access to the community. Their researchers got the numbers of all the top members of the traveller community on the phone, but there was a bit of a communication barrier so I was their translator for a week. I was really anxious about working with the network, as the week went on I could tell the documentary was going in a direction I wasn’t okay with. Asking questions which weren’t appropriate and situations like them really wanting to film bare knuckle fighting. There was a fight going to happen between two families and the network was so eager to get it on film. One of the families didn’t show up. So they were scrambling around to find a fight. A couple of kids approached the producers saying if they got paid they’d fight one another. The producer asked me, and I was shocked she was asking me if I thought it was okay to pay kids to fight. If they were genuinely fighting then film it, but going around paying kids to fight, it wasn’t great. It didn't happen in the end, I spoke to the boys' fathers and we agreed it should not go ahead. I think thats one of the important things about the trust given in a situation like that, the portrayal a filmmaker/ photographer has can have serious consequences. For a group like the Gypsy and Traveller community who are already vastly marginalised you have to tread very carefully, I feel anyway.
The portraits you’ve made within this project have a really unique timeless quality to them. The ones of the two girls especially.
It’s probably just the camera! Thank you, I take a lot of inspiration from old classic photographers. I was always told when assisting to take note of what's come before when making images.
You’re too modest, they really stood out. I think your experience on documenting the travelling community where people's perceptions might not be as accurate as they think leads nicely into the work you made in lockdown. There was a lot of samey imagery during lockdown, photographs of masks on the floor, people shot through windows. When you got in touch with your project it really stood out. How did you go from being in total lockdown, to restrictions being lifted and making new work?
I was pulling my hair out from boredom. I hadn’t been shooting at all for some time. So whilst in lockdown I’d drive past this yard off the side of the motorway tucked behind a canal. I knew it was something to do with dogs, and it was always busy on my weekly drive to the supermarket. It was as simple as just turning up. I’m a big fan of turning up and talking to people rather than arranging something on email. I turned up with some of my pictures and spoke to a few guys there. Told them my intentions and what I wanted to create, eventually I would like to start taking photographs of other types of working dogs but for now Bullmastiffs will do.
Everyone I met was through Sati who owns the yard, so I can’t thank him enough, his company is 5K9 Security if you ever find yourself needing a dog 🙂 . I decided to shoot it against a white backdrop to try and keep a uniformed feel to the work. Avendon was one of my inspirations to start taking pictures, if it works for him, it works for me!
A bit of a simple question, but why did the owners feel the need to have protection by training a dog up?
It did throw me a little bit. Some of them are working dogs like security dogs. Others were just very volatile pets. Unless you need nobody to ever be in your house, I’m not sure why you’d own one when they are trained to hurt. Personally I was weary because having an animal that can do that much damage is a little scary. There is a level of its a weapon and for some I think its showing off, saying I’m hard don’t mess with me I’ve got a big dog. But there is also an element where people feel like they genuinely need protection, for whatever reason. To be honest I probably haven’t met enough dog owners to get a strong hold of that question, so I’ll come back to you on that one when I do.
I had a few of the dogs go for me, one of them got me, luckily just a nip. I try to learn as much as I can about the people I photograph to empathise or understand. But I still can’t wrap my head around having one trained the way those dogs are, unless it's a professional security dog. But that's just my uneducated opinion.
Were there any stand out stories from the people you met?
One of the guys, Faron Paul, he’s a well known knife crime activist. He has been in the news for running an anti knife crime initiative by getting people to trade in knives in exchange for vouchers. People get in touch with him via instagram and arrange a safe place to meet and get another knife off the streets, he then takes them to a knife amnesty centre.
The portrayal is jarring from beware I’ve got a dog to actually I’m a really nice guy…
Yeah, he has a few dogs. A while ago a girl got abducted and since then I know he’s been out on patrol for the community. So he does use them for security reasons. I did find it a little bit funny that there's a guy who is anti violence but also with such a dangerous dog between his legs. But then again it's a professional dog, it's kept safe and won’t harm anyone (unless they’ve got it coming). Is there any more danger in people with tarantulas as pets?
Oh don’t I know someone who kept spiders and snakes and one night the python got out and into their bed, so scary. Going over the photographs, it's interesting that some of the dogs are in full attack mode and others are sitting to attention by their owners' feet. Did you have the idea of having the dogs lunging and barking at the camera showing aggression or?
Not initially. Because the dogs scared me, it turns out these dogs didn’t like having their photos taken so they would lunge and bark at me. I said to the owners that as long as they are 100% sure they’ve got the lead I’d keep taking shots. There was one time, I didn’t include it in the project where a kid was with a dog. I was adamant that the mum should be holding the lead, she assured me the kid could hold it, I didn’t agree. So I opted out.
One of the owners wasn’t interested in having a photo taken of his dog barking and being aggressive. He wanted to show his dog being perfectly obedient. I offered everyone the chance to choose what type of image they wanted, how they wanted to be depicted, almost everyone opted for their dog showing its teeth at you. I guess that's what they wanted people to see, an animal not to be messed with.
I think it's really fascinating the posture and compositions of the owners. The guy with the dog between his legs gives the impression his dog is so strong and the woman standing in her fluffy slippers.
Yeah, sadly Bradley’s dog died shortly after I took the photograph. It was something to do with its heart rate causing its stomach to turn. Apparently it's a really common thing. It’s a shame because it was a very well trained dog. Yeah that's Carrie in her slippers? Yeah I like that. You can picture her walking out of her front door, shouting across the road at her kids.
You can find the full edit of Dogs and other projects by Conor here.