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At Work With: Conor Purcell, We Are Here
At work with

At Work With: Conor Purcell, We Are Here

We start this week in Dubai with Conor Purcell, editor/publisher of quarterly travel magazine We Are Here. Each issue of his magazine combines lo-fi photography with long-form writing about a particular place – the recent third issue looks at Kathmandu. He is also editor of Jashanmal Quarterly, a new A3-sized themed magazine published by Dubai-based Jashanmal Bookstore. The latest issue is about independent magazines – look our for more here about that later this week.

Where are you today?

I am at my desk in my apartment in Dubai Marina. The office was a second bedroom but I ripped out the wardrobe and threw the bed out in a moment of rage/clarity and now the room is devoted to magazines and coffee drinking. If I am not at my desk, then I am probably out trying to pitch a magazine to somebody or taking photographs or wandering the streets looking for coffee.

What can you see from your window?

Thirty-seven lanes of traffic – Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main road, is outside the window. There is also a metro that goes past all day and directly across the street, Jumeirah Lakes Towers, a (fairly new) development. When I moved in here in 2005, I could see the Burj Al Arab and Mall of the Emirates from my balcony, but there has been so much construction that both are no longer visible. I have also seen a number of car crashes – the driving here is terrible.

Do you work better in the morning or the evening?

Definitely in the evening. I try to do the stuff I have to do in the morning so I am freed up later in the day for work that is a bit more creative. I read a lot and often get ideas while doing that – the good thing about having an office at home is I can wander in at all hours and open InDesign and start playing around. I usually try to be in bed by midnight, but it is often much later before I make it.

What’s your favourite magazine today?

I have been going back through some of the magazines I bought last year and really love Wilder. It feels and smells just right and makes me want to move to the country and grow herbs and a beard. I love the paper stock and the almost hallucinogenic use of photos. It’s definitely a magazine I show to potential clients when talking about how magazines can be different to the ones they see on the newsstand.

What do you hope We Are Here reveals about places that more traditional travel magazines don’t?

I hope it’s an honest look at a place, or at least as honest as you can be with a magazine. Unlike mainstream travel magazines, I am not trying to sell the destination, so there is no PR at all. I also want to make sure that writers from the city I go to are featured – I want their point of view, so it’s not just me parachuting in and deciding what the city is about. I don’t have a front of book section, so there are no ‘listicles’ or regurgitated press releases, which seem to dominate mainstream travel magazines more and more. Travel literature is often so honest (everyone from Bruce Chatwin to Paul Theroux never pulled their punches) so it seems strange that travel writing in magazines is so light and patronising.

The magazine makes a virtue of using only smartphone photography. Is this through necessity or an aesthetic decision?

It was definitely a necessity – it forced me to take photographs in a certain way and as I don’t have an expensive camera, it ensures I keep things simple. It’s also a lot easier to get certain photos when using a phone, as I am not obviously taking photos, and so am left alone much more than I would be if I was using a regular camera. When I go to a new city I will just wander around taking random shots to get a feel of the place – it took me a few days to get a handle on Kathmandu, as visually it is very cluttered, particularly compared to Dubai. Once the optics are figured out, you then know immediately if a photo will fit into the magazine or not.

Many editorial designers try to establish a style, yet the two magazines you’ve produced recently, We Are Here and Jashanmal Quarterly, look very different. Is this deliberate or a function of their different content?

I did not want Jashanmal Quarterly to look like We Are Here, as they are very different publications. I also worked with a brilliant designer, Olga Petroff, for JQ, so we were able to be a bit more ambitious with the design, as she has design abilities I don’t have. We wanted to do something the size of a newspaper, and we both really liked Gym Class Magazine, so we started with that and played around with a variety of mastheads and colours. It’s great to show consumers in Dubai that not all magazines have to be A4 size and glossy. It’s themed, so each issue will look slightly different, and that is a lot of fun.

What are you most looking forward to this week?
My parents and brother are coming to Dubai on Thursday – my brother is going to run the Dubai Marathon, so that should be fun. I will be watching and pointing but definitely not running. Also researching a new magazine launch for Dublin, where I will be spending more time this year, so will be setting up a regular magazine base in the city – for a place of its size, the magazine offerings are quite poor. I am also nearly finished Budd Schulberg’s book – What Makes Sammy Run, a classic account of life in the Hollywood grind.

What are you least looking forward to this week?
Checking Bitcoin. I bought some before Christmas and have been obsessively following its ups and downs since then. I probably need to take a break from thinking about it, but it’s quite addictive, although ultimately futile.

What will you be doing after this chat?

Going across the road to get a coffee from Costa. The coffee quality can vary depending on who is working, and they are still using Christmas-themed cups, but aside from that, it’s a pleasant experience.

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