Minceirs by Joseph-Philippe Bevillard

Revealing an honest and raw side to the Irish Traveller community, the photographer shares the details behind his powerful series

Charlotte, Tipperary, Ireland 2019

A fire burns behind two girls as they pose for the camera, cosied up in matching puffer jackets  with an unmissable fur trim. The sky is grey, bleak almost, and you can see the signs of industrialisation poking out in the background. Another image portrays a young bride sitting with her great grandfather, just moments after the event. Her hair is big, her dress is as white as starlight. A further picture sees a young boy in boxing gloves, gesturally strong as he dons a look of pyjama bottoms and wellies.

These are some of the scenes depicted in Joseph-Philippe Bevillard’s Minceirs, a powerful series that lenses the lives of the Traveller community in Ireland. Born in Boston, USA before moving to Ireland in 2000, he started work on the project after hosting a workshop that focused on Travellers – Russell Joslin from Skeleton Key Press in Oslo, Norway, then contacted him about the work and they spent nine months sifting through 750 images, selecting the 90 best. “We wanted to show the readers the hidden world of the Travellers in Ireland,” he tells me, who are a community continuously ostracised by society and people across the globe. He went on to meet 200 families in total and, proving the falsity of many claims and assumptions about the community, learned that they are “very humble” people who mostly wanted to keep living traditionally in an increasingly modernised world. “I wanted to capture their way of life before it disappeared; Irish government are trying to force them to live with settled people and lose their identity and lifestyle.”

The resulting imagery is chaotic just as much as it endearing, like a window has been edged open to reveal a lifestyle in all its raw and undulated honesty. Joseph-Philippe shows the human side of the community, which is a skill that’s been refined since he lost his hearing at the age of three. It was around then that he first started drawing and painting, and thus began what would become a lifetime filled with art and storytelling. Below, I chat to Joseph-Philippe to hear more the project.

Paddy, Galway, Ireland 2019

What can we learn about this community, and how did you want to portray them within your imagery?

I hope my images give a glimpse into the lifestyle of the travelling community; I show their hardships, culture and how important family is to them. I try to portray it honestly, where some Travellers live in extreme poverty, while others have made a better lifestyle and love to celebrate life and all occasions. 

What was the process like while photographing this project?

I am very lucky to live in an area where it’s not far from many Traveller campsites, where some are my favourite places and are easily a day trip by car. Sometimes, if it’s over a two hours’ drive, I’m heading to a late-night event like a wedding, or when I have a workshop or a private tour, I would be on the road for one or two weeks. So that is when I would stay in a hotel or B&B.

After Church Wedding, Wexford, Ireland 2019

What was the relationship like with your subjects, did you spend much time getting to know them?

It was difficult at first since being deaf in both ears; communicating with them was awkward but once I started taking pictures and showing them the photographs, they trusted me and brought me to meet other members and clans. Photographs are so important to them. Their photographs from the past are often damaged or missing from moving place-to-place and living in damp and cramped caravans. They said I am always welcome and greeted me with tea and food, and even offered me a bed to sleep. Most importantly, they know I don’t work for the media or the government as they feared they will portray them as bad people.

What’s your main goal with Minceirs, are you hoping to change the negative stereotypes associated with Irish Travellers?

I wanted to show that the Travellers are not bad people. Since they are made up of one percent of the Irish population, they are often demonised by society, and Travellers are often helpless and voiceless. Like any society in the world, when one person commits a crime, they are painted with one brush. For the past 12 years, I have visited their campsites unexpectedly and I have not witnessed any illegal activities. Boys and men were always working with the horses, the women clean their homes, looking after the babies and the children were always playing outside.

Kathleen and Bridget, Dublin, Ireland 2020

What’s next for you, any upcoming projects?

I am continuing to document the Travellers for the rest of my life. Currently and for the upcoming future, I am working on several themes related to the travelling communities. For the past year I have been focusing heavily on the fashion side of the travelling communities, as I find them very elaborate and colourful. Some of the girls have hair almost reaching their feet and start wearing makeup, high-heeled shoes and pierced earrings as young as three to mimic their mothers and older siblings. 

My other themes are focusing on specific families or a campsite. I wanted to capture the transition of the children’s future and what became of them once they leave school at around 15 years of age. Most boys end up working with their father, looking after the animals and working with scrap metal and wood. The girls help their mother, looking after the younger siblings, the disabled and the elderly. Most are married from the age of 16 to 18 and tend to have many children. They are a very tight knitted community and are always looking after each other. This is because it is difficult for a Traveller to gain employment due to discrimination. 

Gold Rings, Galway, Ireland 2019
Murt and his Great Granddaughter Betty on Her First Holy Communion, Wexford, Ireland 2021
William and His Lurcher, Limerick, Ireland 2018
Running Child, Dublin, Ireland 2020
Donoghue Brothers, Galway, Ireland 2019
Connors Men, Dublin, Ireland 2019

Joseph-Philippe’s Minceirs is available from Setanta Books

In conversation with Roger Deakins

The acclaimed cinematographer publishes his first monograph, a documentation of rural life in Devon shot over four decades

Before the children take over, Weston – Super – Mare, 2019 © Roger Deakins

Roger Deakins needs little introduction. Revered for his cinematography work on films such as Sicario, The Shawshank Redemption, 1917, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and many (countless) more, he’s become a master of remarkable, boundary-pushing imagery. But how many know of his photography pursuits? 

Perhaps an unsurprising pairing, Roger has spent a life documenting his surroundings in rural North Devon, which has now been compiled into his first monograph titled Byways, published by Damiani and featuring a collection of previously unseen, black and white still photography. Idly wandering with a camera in tow, Roger would find purpose in his solitary walks amongst the farms, trees and the nature-rich countryside, often returning again and again to the coastlines of Paignton, Teignmouth and Torquay – the latter a place in which he still calls home, despite mostly residing in Santa Monica with his wife and collaborator, James. Below, I chat to Roger to learn more about the relationship between both mediums, his love of the British seaside and why, in utter modesty, he still refuses to call himself as a photographer: “I just sometimes feel a bit embarrassed – these are just little images taken over the years.” 

On a train returning from a day of shooting for ‘The Reader’, Germany, 2007 © Roger Deakins

So what was it like growing up in Devon?

Frustrating. I mean, my childhood was mixed because I really love the outside – I love walking, I love fishing, and I loved that aspect of it as a kid – but I wasn’t happy. I wanted to get away, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I didn’t have a clue. 

I went to art college, which is probably what you do, or what you did back then, when you didn’t know what else to do. I then went to college at Corsham Bath Academy of Art, and that was probably the best decision for me. I didn’t get into the local Dartington College of Arts, and Bath was one of the last places open for applications. I was lucky to go there, and that’s where I discovered image making; I discovered photography.

Would you say that your rural upbringing in Devon had an influence on of your photography and film work?

I think your environment and upbringing moulds you to a very large extent. I am still that person. A couple of weeks ago, I was out in my boat in Torquay. I still go fishing and I still love the natural world; I love the way the light changes in Devon every 10 minutes. I’m not really a town person, which might seem odd seeing as we live in Santa Monica most of the time. But I love it here as well. 

You found your feet once you attended art school, but what was it that sparked your initial interests in photography?

I love looking at photography books and painting – I used to paint a lot in school, and I love image making and movies. There was a little film society that I joined when I was in my early teens, but I didn’t connect that to anything that I could do to earn money. It wasn’t until I went to art college and met Roger Mayne, the great still photographer, and realised that maybe this is something I could do, and that there was a chance I could work like that too. 

I started taking photographs, and a friend told me about the National Film School opening up. This was in 1970, and I applied thinking I wanted to make documentaries, because that was the kind of image making I was into. I got rejected that year, but I was lucky enough to get an assignment taking photographs in North Devon, recording country life. Then, I asked the principal of the National Film School why I had been rejected, and they said, well, if you apply next year, you’ll get in. They just wanted people with more experience of life for the first year of intake. So then I went to the National Film School. 

The lady wondered why I took this photograph, Weston – Super – Mare, 2004 © Roger Deakins

Film also seemed a lot harder to break into back then – the same for any kind of art career, really.

Even at college when you’re discussing your career, as you do when you’re leaving, I was laughed at for the idea of working as a photographer. 

Did you ever have a backup plan, or was it always going to be photography and film?

Go back to Torquay and go fishing. I was pretty good at fishing. 

I mean, if you’re from Devon…

You romanticise about things like that, but I might have done. I still have friends that I grew up with and that’s what they do. It’s quite a nice lifestyle.

In terms of the book itself, it’s interesting how you’ve written in the introduction that you’re not a still photographer, and that you won’t pretend to be one at this stage in your career. Why don’t you call yourself a still photographer?

The images, for me, are just sketches. I dreamt of being a still photographer, especially when I was at art college. That feeling of just wandering around with a camera and experiencing different parts of the world – it would have been wonderful. But I’ve never spent the time necessary to really develop. So the book is my sketches over the years, I suppose.

That’s quite a modest way of looking at it. What do you think grants someone the title of a photographer?

That’s true, but I don’t think it would be for me to say that I’m a photographer; I’m a cinematographer. I can accept that I am quite good as film cinematographer, and I’m worthy of that title. I look at some photographers that I worship and I wish I could do what they do.

This gull is confused by a new addition to the sea front, Paignton, 2015 © Roger Deakins

Why have you decided to share these pictures now?

You take photographs, and what do you do? Just put them in a cupboard and that’s it? A number of people have asked to see my still work, and have asked about publishing a book. So my wife, James, and I discussed it over a year ago now. And because of COVID, we had the time to really work on it.

I’d love to hear about your process while shooting – walking for hours with your camera at hand.

It’s just relaxation and I love exploring places. If I’m shooting a movie, I’ll go for a walk on the weekend, wandering around with no particular direction in mind. Sometimes I take photographs and other times I won’t. And I do the same in Devon now, I just like to go and wander around.

What would catch your eye?

It’s not really any one thing. I think that’s what the book shows, that it could be the tree on a cliff path that I pass every time I go for a run. Or it could be something simple like a statue, or I could be waiting and observing a situation where I want somebody to be in it. I usually want some sort of human element in the frame, and I wait for something to happen. I do that quite a bit; standing on a corner feeling a bit stupid waiting for something to happen. 

It’s quite the patience game, isn’t it? 

It can be, it’s very frustrating. Because sometimes you see something, and you miss it. And other times, you wait for something and it never happens. I’m quite often arriving somewhere to go for a walk, and I stop the car, I try and get a photograph and it’s too late.

I liked the dog’s second jump as it looked at the camera, Teignmouth, 2000 © Roger Deakins

The coast plays a prominent role throughout the works, why so?

It’s where I was brought up and it’s where I live in Santa Monica – we’re not far from the beach. I would find it very hard to live away from the ocean. There’s something about walking on the beach and having that sense of space, and the changing light. I love the English seaside and I always intend on doing a series of photographs exclusively about the subject. But I’ve never got around to it. Maybe – luckily – I’ve always been too busy. Maybe the time will come.

The pictures tend to pose a lot of questions for the viewer, like the one of the dog jumping off the wall at Teignmouth beach . It makes you think, how did the dog jump off like that?

It’s funny – there was an owner throwing a stick off the promenade above. My wife and I were just walking on the beach, and then two dogs jumped after the stick, and I quickly took a photograph. I didn’t like the composition at first, as it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Then, one of the dogs took the stick and started running up the steps to the top of the promenade again, so I just changed my position hoping that there would be a second chance. The dog jumped over and, as it came down – because I was moving closer – it looked at me. I thought that was such a great thing, you know, the dog looking at the camera. I was very lucky to get that moment in the frame.

I love the eye contact.

Usually you’re trying to not have people conscious of you, but I don’t mind that. When I started photographing in North Devon, there was a number shots of somebody looking into the lens. And I’m not trying to be dishonest, I am standing there with a camera. So in one way or another – without getting into physics – I’m part of the whole. I’m influencing what’s happening.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2014 © Roger Deakins

How has your relationship with photography changed over time?

I didn’t really do much still photography at all for years, I just concentrated on my film work. Once I got fairly established as a cinematographer, I started working more with the stills camera again. I like it more now than I have for many, many years. Even though I don’t take many photographs, it’s an excuse for me as much as anything to just get out and go for a walk.

Do you think you’ll work on a photography project in the future, or would it still be very much the case of snapping things, with no real intention?

That sounds more like me – just wondering around with no real intention. I really love the English seaside, so I’d love to spend more time with that. But then you really need to invest the time to do it justice. If I get a long period where I’m shooting a film or something, I might do that.

This book is a good place to start.

It’s nice that there’s been quite a lot of interest in it so far. I don’t know, I just sometimes feel a bit embarrassed because, as I said, I’m not a still photographer. These are just like little images taken over the years.

But this might change that…

Do you think I’ll get a job? Maybe it’s a new career, that would be kind of nice.

 

Roger Deakins’ Byways in published by Damiani in hardback at £45