Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The documentary Gypsy Blood, which focuses on the lives of two bare-knuckle fighters from Irish traveller and Romany gypsy communities, met with controversy and acclaim when it aired last month on Channel 4. Its director, Leo Maguire, a photographer by trade, tells us why he switched medium…

Gypsy Blood started as a photography project.

I went to a gypsy fair where I met a born again preacher who invited me to his church. There I met another guy, who was a boxing promoter and trainer; he invited me to his gym and it went from there. That was five years ago. It took such a long time to build up trust with people – I probably would have given up but I had won a Getty grant in September 2007 so I had that hanging over me.

The first time I wanted to film something was after we’d been hare coursing for the day. All the guys went to this pub afterwards and they were drinking and singing. It’s so bizarre; these rough men all sit in a pub and sing really beautifully. They sit there listening respectfully and then cheer the next one on and then the next one sings. You can’t capture that through photos.

I had no previous experience of filmmaking. I literally just pressed the record button on the back of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and that’s how I started. I showed some rushes to a friend – at the time I thought I was possibly going to do a multimedia piece – and he suggested that the access and footage I had were so unique that I should do a film.

I made the film spending my own money. I’d run out of money and have to come back to work and earn some more money and then go back. I took a serious chunk of my life to try and understand this community, but one of the key things for me was to have no narration, so that the film was in their own words. I didn’t want it to be about my experience living with them or my opinion of their lives; it was up to them to explain and put their side across.

Learning about audio was a massive challenge. I spent a day with a top cinematographer, watching how he moved with the camera, and what he taught me was that in photography your frame makes the content but in filmmaking your content makes a frame. You might have people out of shot talking about something incredible, so you need to listen to the dialogue and frame accordingly.

As a photographer, I was used to moving around a lot and that doesn’t translate well into film; you have to learn to be still, to work out your shots. When you’re listening to conversations, you need to think about what they’re saying and pick up cutaways to make it interesting in the edit because otherwise you’re going to have a very long shot with not a huge amount happening.

When you shoot photographs you talk to people but you’re invisible. With filmmaking, although I was doing observational filming, you need to ask questions and prompt people to open up, so I had to learn not to be scared of my own voice. You do get used to it but at first I felt very self-conscious.

It took a long time to get commissioned but when I found the right production company it all happened very quickly. I was in the Alps working on assignment in the new year and I got a call from a friend who said, “I’ve been at a party and was telling this producer there about your project and she’s really interested and wants to meet you”. So I met up with her and her business partner in late January and they liked the idea, re-cut it, wrote a treatment, and it was commissioned by More4 in April.

Now I’m back with the gypsies, trying to finish the project photographically, and I’m doing quite formal stuff, mainly portraits, details and landscapes, with a view to doing gallery, book-based pieces. I see myself as a communicator – whatever’s the right medium to tell a story, that’s what I use – but filmmaking has taught me a lot as a photographer. It makes you slow down and question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I was always someone who would photograph everything, but actually I think if you apply a strategy it can be more powerful.

Leo Maguire was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.

This article originally appeared on IdeasMag.

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