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Annabel Blue
Gareth McConnell is a London-based, Northern Ireland-raised photographer. His works have garnered international recognition for their Lorelei-like quality, often containing deeply spiritual, symbolic and psychedelic imagery of humanity and nature. Influenced by his upbringing in Northern Ireland and his affinity for extremes, McConnell’s work explores themes of youth and evolution, ideas “that engender a new world view, a collapsing of boundaries, an inner vision, and profound consciousness.”

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the ’80s, Gareth McConnell learned the power of war and perception. It was a time “that gave me a series of masks that I’m in the process of discarding,” he notes. “That geography—by that, I mean the location where you are born—is probably the most defining thing that will ever happen to you.” This remark takes on extra poignancy as, as we speak, the war in Ukraine unfolds. “Communication and striving to understand the perspective of others are essential if we are going to survive. Power will always victimise. The worst aspects of human character are exacerbated by poverty, and power structures will seize this and manipulate it to blame that section of society for the ills that have been created.”

Whether you’re familiar with McConnell’s works or just encountering them for the first time, you’ll find a lot of imagery of naked bodies poised with hands above their heads—a reference to interrogation techniques developed during the Northern Ireland conflict and now used globally with prisoners of war. “[It’s] one of the most commonly used stress positions,” McConnell explains. It was perhaps here, with this image, that he began formulating a synergy with documentative ideation and the tantalising intersection of war and innocence.

McConnell’s interest in pursuing a creative vocation was spurred by a relationship his mother had with a band member from the local punk scene in Northern Ireland. “He was a bit down on his luck at the time, and he used to come round the house to try and teach me guitar, as I wanted to be in a band myself, of course,” shares McConnell. “Anyway, I never got the hang of it, and I never joined a band, but it did spark an interest in creativity.” This spark ultimately led him to art college, following a series of events that brought him to England in 1992. During college, McConnell gained attention for his works illuminating life in Northern Ireland, and began to get his photographs published in a series of shows and magazines. In the early 2000s, McConnell was included in a major series called Contemporary British Photographers, published by Photoworks/Steidl, “which gave me a lot of visibility and opportunity. I then started working on assignments for clients such as The New York Times magazine and the like.” Since then, McConnell has had somewhat of a multifaceted career, “with its fair share of ups and downs,” he adds.

Courtesy of Gareth McConnell from his book The Dream Meadow (2019)

Having been published in magazines including Purple, Dazed & Confused, AnOther, POP, Vogue, LOVE and more, McConnell has shifted away from fashion photography and now prefers to take a more reflective approach, with flowers as his symbol of choice. “A part of it is getting older maybe, they [flowers] make me happy and by making work with them I am hoping to make other people happy. They put me in touch with my cosmic nature and I just like going, ‘Hey, look at this.’ I guess I am trying to immortalise them,” he offers. “On a more serious note, which is not intended to be overly didactic, I am saying, ‘Look at what we have got and what we must respect, the wonder that we walk past every day without thought.’” He takes a moment then adds, “Are there flowers on Mars?”

While much of McConnell’s recent work does feature flowers, some of his archival works feature significant references to drug use—such as those as found in his books Sex, Drugs and Magick or The Dream Meadow. “As teens, we took these drugs, we walked the streets at night having psychedelic experiences, which on reflection could be framed in spiritual terms. We went to raves and had profound ego collapses and often deeply disturbing drug-fuelled encounters that we were not always equipped to deal with,” he shares of his youth. “Going back to the rave question, what primarily interested me was that, on reflection, we were doing was deeply rooted in the human experience going back thousands of years – music, lights, drugs, repetitive beat, group experience.” He recalls reading Erich Fromms’ The Art of Loving: “I remember him defining orgiastic experiences and how the tribes would come together to symbiotically join with each other in these rituals to collapse boundaries – the individual self, the prison of self – in order to become one and to become God. And by that, I mean the everything.”

McConnell speaks to his history and the coming together of personal circumstance and broader social and political contexts as an unwieldy yet inherent concoction of life. “Our deep politicisation at an early age, the nonsense and hate that we were exposed to, the regressive ideologies that we were subjected to, mixed with the advent and explosion of rave, the sudden appearance of cheap powerful drugs, gave us huge shake-ups on a deep spiritual level … Though a lot of good came out of it, there was a lot of bad. A lot to go into, but I know a lot of people who didn’t make it – murder, suicide, general alcoholic or drug related deaths. When we talk about addiction we cannot, to my mind, separate these circumstances.” The flowers, he adds, are about hope and optimism. “Beauty, yes, but they are also about the above, they are the wreaths on coffins, on the graves – memories of friends and country wo/men.” [EXEUNT]


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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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