jaJoseph-Philippe Bevillard – Interview With a Photographer
5th September 2020
MadeGood – Please give me a bit of background about yourself. How did you get into photography, and what drives you as a photographer? There’s a lot of portraiture in your photography, please talk about that too
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – I had my first photography course at a deaf school in Massachusetts when I was 11. The course was basically about how the camera works and makes the final pictures with a Kodak Instamatic camera. 8 years later I attended at a private school in North Andover, Massachusetts, where I learned a great deal about photography such as composition, lightings, understanding asa, f-stop and shutter speed, focal length of lenses and type of cameras as well as developing your own b&w film and prints in the darkroom. I fell in love with photography ever since. My first portraits were portraits of my classmates, friends and families. I have always been an artist since I lost my hearing in both ears at 3 as a result from high fever. My parents felt that it would be best if I learned something with my hands and eyes. They enrolled me in many art courses and brought me to museums and galleries. I was fortunate to have some friends and relatives who were artists. Until I was about 17, I have learned many media such as sculpture, ceramic, wood carving, lino cut, painting, silk-screening, etching and drawings. Yes there is a lot of portraiture in my work because as a deaf person, I spend a lot of time lip-reading, looking at person’s facial expression and body language. I knew I wouldn’t have any difficulty taking portraits. However I do other type of photography such as landscape, still-life and abstract but I think I’m very confident with portraiture.
MadeGood – A large amount of your photography seems to have been taken in the US. Did you just visit or were you there more permanently? What took you there?
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – I used to live in South Carolina, Boston, New York and Minnesota before I moved to Ireland in 2000. My adoptive parents were French, my father took up a teaching post in the US and while my parents were there they adopted me and my brother in Boston, so that is where I grew up until I decided to come to Ireland in 2000. My parents moved back to Paris so I thought I could be near enough to them in Europe.
MadeGood – How did you get involved in taking photos within the traveller community, and why do you continue to take photos with them?
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – When I moved from Boston to Ireland in the year 2000, I remember taking a taxi from Shannon airport, I wasn’t five minutes on route to my destination and I spotted a row of caravans and white vans on the roadside with scantily clothed children running around large black and white ponies, clothes billowing in the wind suspended on a makeshift clothes line, more than likely hand washed as there was no apparent running water where they camped along the main road, mothers and daughters doing their morning chores, young adolescence males burning rubbish on the bonfire, so much activities, chaos and their nomadic lifestyle have imbedded in my mind ever since. I was intrigued, to my utmost curiosity, I began to study the travellers and try to build up some form of trust, once I gained this, I decided to document them in 2010.
As a fine-art black and white documentary photographer who studied the medium at the Art Institute of Boston in 1990, two decades of skills behind me gave me the confidence to photograph the Irish Travellers. Freckled-faced children, young women with long hair and bright make-up with large jewellery, scantily dressed, proudly displaying cleavage, men proudly portraying scars and tattoos, sometimes smeared with grease and dirt, bonfire, litter of rubbish and metal scraps, horses, caravans, horse trailers and vans became important elements in my photographs. Most importantly, their weather-beaten and sometime scarred faces provide hard evidence in their portraits and yet each person shows their hardship, history and uncertainty about their future in their eyes.
MadeGood – One thing that is so striking about your photos, especially with the travellers, is how personal and unguarded they are. How do you achieve that? You can tell you have a very close relationship.
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – Few years after I moved to Ireland in 2000, I started a garden design business and I employed 5 Traveller men who were brothers and we became good friends. They told me about a big horse fair in Galway where many Travellers attended. So in 2009 I went to Ballinasloe Horse Fair to check out and took a few pictures. The following year, I went again and took some good numbers of photos and in 2011, I returned with photos to give to families and they were so delighted and invited me to meet the rest of family and other families on the campground as well as inviting me to their permanent homes which are the halting sites and roadside campsites. I earned their trust which allowed me to get close with them. The more time you spend with them – they get more comfortable as if I blend in their environment and respecting them.
MadeGood – How does the traveller community view you? Do they have something that they want you to communicate to a wider audience, or is it less considered than that?
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – Travellers tend to keep problems to themselves and are too afraid or too shy to express their concerns or problems to the general public. Or maybe they get fed up once they make complaint like reporting racism or discrimination, nothing has been done. Most of the Travelling communities know me as the photographer since the Travelling communities spread the word about me like wildfire. Traveller community are like one big family because they are all related through 1st, 2nd, 3rd cousins etc. I know they wanted me to tell the wider audience about housing, discrimination and suicide problems. It’s very hard for them to talk about suicides because it affected the whole family, Suicides rate are 7 times higher than the settled population. I think having my pictures shared with the wider public can document their hardships and explain their culture to the settled community in Ireland and bring awareness of the existence of the Irish Travellers to a worldwide audience. I feel the Travellers are pleased with this exposure. Travellers are very proud people.
MadeGood – This might just be my impression, but your photography seems to have gone from exclusively black and white medium format film photography to colour digital- is that right? if so, what’s behind the switch?
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – That’s one of the most interesting question I ever received – glad you brought that up! I was travelling in Italy last spring. I had a Hasselblad with a prism, 50 and 80mm lens and a Nikon d3300 with a small zoom lens. I do not want a heavy digital camera because it would have been too heavy with my Hasselblad and the lightweight Nikon was the camera I always bring to take personal travel pictures. While getting off the Venice – Rome train in Bologna I realized I left my bag with Hasselblad kit in it. Since my Italian is very poor, I had the guy whom I rented the self-catering apartment from, rang the lost and found department hoping the train staff recover it before it reach Rome but no luck. For the rest of the week I could not take any pictures with my usual camera that I had since early 1990’s so I said to myself ‘why not use a digital camera’ despite my dislike for digital cameras fearing it would weaken my visualization or lower my B&W film reputation, I got carried away with the colour and the fact it’s so much easier to work with. So after I returned from Italy, I purchased another Hasselblad kit and started documenting the Travellers with digital and still do portraits with b&w films. Having two cameras allow me to do two different projects at the same time and since I gave most people I photographed preferred colour prints. But to reiterate my loyalty still lies with B&W photography!
MadeGood – What do you have planned for the foreseeable future? Is there more of a story to tell with the traveller community, or do you have something else in mind?
Joseph-Philippe Bevillard – Photographing young members of travelling communities is very important to me. I wanted to document their way of life growing up. Education, suicides, homelessness and jobs are their greatest concerns. Also I’m wondering if they are following in their parent’s footstep to continue living in caravans in order to maintain their once-nomadic lifestyle or feel the pressure from government and their peers to lose their identity and live the mainstream life of settled people. I do hope that many young Travellers do not lose their identity and if they wish to continue to live in a traditional lifestyle when they become adults, but with better living facilities being provided for them. There are problems associated in living with the general population as most don’t want Travellers living next door to them as they decrease value of houses. Racism is a huge problem in Ireland even for the fact that the Irish Travellers are pure Irish. I do hope to continue to document the families and their extended families, I will continue as long as they welcome me.