Dave Courtney is an ex-British gangster who lives in a mansion he calls "Camelot" in South London. In his heyday, Dave was one of the most feared criminals in England. Since retiring, he's written seven books, acted in and directed numerous films, and been the subject of a Rancid song where Lars Frederiksen screams about how much of a badass he is for about three minutes.
For this year's Photo Issue, Julian Burgin spent some time with Dave at Camelot, where he shot the intimate photos of him and his wife featured in "One Flash Bastard." We wanted to know what it was like to hang out with the real-life Big Chris (oh yeah, Dave says the notorious debt-collector from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was based on him), so we called him up.
VICE: Hi, Julian! How did this shoot come about? Did you know Dave personally before the shoot?
Julian Burgin: A friend of mine is an investigative journalist who has known Dave for a while and suggested that it may be an interesting time in Dave's life to take some photographs. Dave lives not far from me in South London, but I had never met him before. My friend took me to Dave's house and introduced us.
Were you nervous about meeting him?
I was quite nervous initially, but I relaxed pretty quickly when I saw how friendly Dave was. I was still quite wary, though. When Dave challenged me to a game of pool, I did consider deliberately losing the game so I wouldn't upset him. But he ended up beating me anyway, even after giving me a 20 shot lead and using only one arm to hold the cue. Apparently he acquired his pool skills during his time in prison.
Sounds like you guys got along. How much time did you spend with him?
I visited him over a two-week period.
How did he feel about letting you take pictures of his private life?
He was open to it and allowed me to photograph anything I wanted to. He started by giving me a tour of his house and then seemed to forget I was there. He usually has a lot of visitors throughout the day, and his behavior around them seemed largely unaffected by my presence. He has been photographed a lot, so you have to be careful not to repeat "standard" shots of Dave. People like to request certain poses in an attempt to reinforce his image as a "hard man."
Have you taken photos of other ex-criminals or interesting characters?
Another ex-criminal I photographed recently is the subject of an upcoming VBS.TV film, Rule Britannia: Fraud. His crimes were non-violent—mostly credit card fraud. Growing up in the same area as Dave, the two had become friends and admired each other, but I think Dave saw that type of crime as a young man's game. Dave's technique would be much more direct. If he were going to steal something, he would be actively, physically involved.
Yeah, he's led quite a violent life. What does his nickname "One Flash Bastard" mean? And why is it written on the tombstone?
It means showoff, but it's meant to be read sort of affectionately. That name is written on the tombstone because Dave acknowledges that he is a showoff. He prides himself on his flamboyance and his home, Camelot. Dave likes getting noticed, be it by what he wears or what he says. He recognizes that these characteristics have their disadvantages when it comes to being a criminal, since the most successful outlaws are arguably the ones no one has heard of. No one is likely to miss Dave in an identity parade.
Yeah, he's wearing lots of flashy jewelry in these photographs. I particularly like his brass knuckle necklace.
He has a wall in his house devoted to showcasing various models of brass knuckles. It's his weapon of choice. Carrying a gun or knife may lead to killing someone, but the knuckle duster is unlikely to do that. It will just incapacitate your opponent.
Has he told you any crazy stories from his past?
I don't really have any Dave stories to recount. I also didn't read them before I met him, and deliberately avoided them when I could. I wanted to document Dave without prior prejudice. I recognize that this is ultimately impossible, but it was an attempt to view Dave and his environment without an expectation of what I was going to find.
That makes sense. What's your usual approach to photography?
I mostly do portraiture. I am interested in photographs in which the subject is not immediately obvious. I like to pose the question, "Why has this photograph been taken?"
There's a photo in the issue of him on TV. Is that from a trial or something?
No, it's actually footage of Dave at one of his book signings. These are usually followed by Q&A sessions during which he's more than happy to talk about his past criminal exploits and major criminals that he has known.
Book signing! That's far less frightening. Do you know why he quit the gangster life?
I think Dave quit because he became too high profile. When the general public begins to recognize you, you become a liability to a criminal employer. Even if he were to work as a self-employed gangster, getting noticed is a drawback.
In your introduction you call him a "reformed gangster." Is that true?
I guess he is more retired than reformed, but I'm not sure. What he really misses from his life of crime is the excitement and the money—two things that attract most criminals. His attempt to become a celebrity is a quest for, again, excitement and money. Same ends, different means.
The article made me feel sad for him. How is he dealing with his problems?
However positive Dave appears, his troubles continue. Tragically, last month his stepson was murdered. He was shot while getting into his car. On Dave's website, he says that this incident shows that crime doesn't pay. I am sure he means it.
That's terrible. My condolences go out to the Courtneys. What are you working on now?
One of my current projects is a series of diptychs entitled "Domestic Science". In this work I pair pictures of my daughter with seemingly unrelated images in an attempt to examine the effect one photograph has on another.
KRISTEN YOONSOO KIM