Wake up. It’s 2014 and you’re 22-years-old. You’re at your parents’ house just outside of Liverpool and you’re in bed with an aching hangover. Within the hour you’ll sign an unexpected last-minute NDA and a contract making you the main photographer for the biggest celebrity wedding of the decade.
Sounds like an anxiety dream come to life, right?
Well, that’s exactly what happened to Liverpudlian photographer Conor McDonnell. At the time he’d never met the couple and hadn’t even been to a wedding before. He was a relatively unknown, self-taught photographer who cut his teeth photographing bands such as The Subways, but after a deal couldn’t be reached with Kim and Kanye’s original photographer, Annie Leibovitz, to his great surprise Conor was called in.
Now 29, I caught up with the unassuming Scouse lad to ask him what the hell happened and how it feels looking back.
VICE: Now then Conor, let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into photography?
Conor McDonnell: I’m pretty much self-taught apart from the odd YouTube tutorial here and there. I got into it when I was about 15 or 16. There was a concert I really wanted to go to in Manchester. One of my favourite bands at the time, The Subways, were playing and their show was sold out. I couldn’t afford the price of the tout tickets because they were twice as much as the door price. I don’t know what made me think of it but I looked in the booklet from the band’s album and saw who their management company was and I emailed them. I also managed to find the singer and the bassist’s personal Myspace pages, so I messaged them too. I lied a little bit saying, “I’m really interested in photography and it will really help me with my GCSE art” – even though it wouldn’t – “is there any chance I could come and get a press pass?” I knew that if I got a press pass I’d get in for free. That’s how it all started.
Were you even interested in photography?
I actually wasn’t that bothered about the photography side of it, I just made all that up to get in for free. I had this very basic SLR camera that I got for Christmas a few years before. It was in a box for when we had family birthdays or parties. I took that and I thought if I left it in automatic mode it would be fine, but halfway through the first song I looked at the back of the camera and the photos were awful. So I popped it onto manual mode and worked out which buttons did what and that started my obsession with it. After that gig I basically emailed everyone and anyone that was playing in Liverpool to see if I could photograph their shows. I was in school and I’d send about a hundred emails a day. I’d get probably two replies, one would be “No” and the other would be like a “Maybe, we’ll think about it.”
Eventually I built up a portfolio, and I’m still doing it now.
After The Subways, who else did you work with?
The first guy I ever properly toured with was James Morrison. I did two or three dates of the tour. After him I did a bit of work with Rita Ora. The big one for me was Ellie Goulding. I went to America with her and did some festivals and went everywhere. Through her I met Calvin Harris.
Where does Kanye West come into it?
I met Nabil [Elderkin, Kanye West’s friend and photographer] in LA. He was doing a shoot with someone and I was on set. I got chatting to him and we went for a drink after.
So how did that lead to you photographing Kanye’s wedding?
It was May 2014 and I’d been out the night before in Liverpool. I’d just got back from tour and I’d gone straight out with my mates because I’d not seen them for a couple of months. I was at home at my mum and dad’s house. I was still living there at the time, it’s about thirty minutes north of Liverpool. When I woke up I had 15 missed calls from Nabil. I was hungover and I thought, “I’ll call him back later. I barely knew the guy and I’ll call him back in a few hours when I’m more awake.” Then he texted me saying, “Need to speak to you. Pick up.” I thought, “Oh god, this sounds urgent.” At first I thought I’d done something wrong, I didn’t know what was going on.
I responded and he texted and said, “I’ve got a job for you tomorrow in Europe. Are you free? I can’t tell you what it is but you have to sign an NDA.” This was all through text! I couldn’t call him because he was on a flight when I woke up and he was using the Wi-Fi. So I signed the NDA and said, “What is it?”
He said, “It’s Kim and Kanye’s wedding.” I was like, “Oh shit… okay?!” I actually thought I was going to assist him because he’s a massive photographer, he’s one of my favourites. So I asked him what lighting and equipment he needed and he said, “No, you’re my guy, you’re shooting it!” I sent a text back saying, “You realise that 1. I’ve never photographed a wedding before and 2. I don’t own a suit?” He messaged back saying, “I trust you. But make sure you have a suit.”
Unreal. Did you manage to get one?
Well, my car was getting its MOT that day so I had to wait all day for mum or dad to come home from work to drive me into Liverpool to get one! It was mad [laughs]. I went to Topman. You can’t go wrong. It was also the only place open that had something in my size, so it was either that or nothing.
You must have been nervous.
Honestly, I never really realised the size of it until after. I’m a massive Kanye fan but I didn’t know much about the Kardashian’s. I didn’t watch their show or anything, so I didn’t know just how big it was. I wasn’t really nervous about it because it all happened so quickly I didn’t have time to be. It was at the end of the wedding I started to realise, “Oh God, have I done okay here? Have I done a good job?” But I don’t usually feel pressure in that sort of way, I never have.
Why do you think Nabil asked you?
I’ve never actually asked him why. I guess for ease they needed someone in Europe, but I’m sure he knows a lot of other people over here, so I don’t actually know.
Had you met the couple before?
No, never met them before. I only knew Nabil at the wedding.
What were they like?
They were lovely. They were so genuine and so welcoming to me. They were really, really nice.
Were they particular about who and what you could photograph?
No, they basically gave me free reign. I could do whatever I wanted on the day and shoot anything. I knew I’d have to do portraits at some point, which was already organised by the wedding planner to be after the ceremony, but aside from that I was just there to capture the day.
Because I’d not worked with them before I said to Kim, “If I’m in the way or anything just give me a shout and I’ll move, or get out the room.” But she was fine, she said, “Do whatever you want and shoot whatever you want. We trust you.” They really trust Nabil, so the fact that he said I was “his guy” really helped. It was a really nice day, a nice wedding. They were lovely and I’d work with them again in an instant, to be honest.
So what happened after?
I did an edit and sent them a selection over and they chose whichever ones they wanted to release.
Was it a secret that you were the photographer?
I think so, yeah. I was never tagged in anything online. But once people found out it was me then it went everywhere, because I was a very unexpected choice. There was a journalist in Liverpool who had seen a paparazzi shot of me at the wedding and he printed a story about it. That was the first thing and then it kind of blew up.
Do you have a favourite photo from the big day?
I do have a favourite but it’s never been published. It’s a picture of Kanye peeking out and watching his family arrive. There’s something about that picture that I really love. I also really like one they have published which is them two and the baby.
How does it feel looking back?
It feels like ages ago. It was a crazy time. Doing that definitely got my name out there. One of those pictures became the most liked photo on Instagram and broke records at the time. It was nuts! Looking back it was a dream job. It definitely changed the course of my career in some ways. For ages I was that guy that shot Kim and Kanye’s wedding. Well, I guess I still am, to be fair. It definitely helped me out massively.
I’ve carried on doing live music and touring. Since then the main artist I’ve worked with is Calvin Harris, he’s one of my best mates now. I’ve gone all around the world with him.
Have you shot any more weddings?
I’ve shot two friends’ weddings since then but I’ve never wanted to be a wedding photographer and I don’t aim to be. I’ve had countless people ask me to shoot their weddings since then, but it’s never been something I’ve wanted to do.
I’ve also delved into my love of nature and wildlife and adventure. Half of my job is music, the other half is jumping on expeditions, working with David Attenborough and going to places like the North Pole or the Maasai Mara and photographing lions and elephants. It’s a weird mix but it works for me!
What made you get into nature photography?
I’ve always been interested in it. My oldest memories are sitting on my grandad’s knee and him reading stories of the first arctic explorers. When I was younger I’d always go camping with my parents for holidays and we’d be out in nature a lot. It’s always been there, I guess I’ve just had more opportunities recently to go to these remote places. Backstage at a festival once I met a polar explorer and he invited me to Svalbard up in Norway to see some polar bears.
The biggest thing I did was I attempted to sail to the North Pole in a non-ice-breaking 50ft yacht. Like a sailboat. I was at sea for two months. So yeah, my career has definitely changed a bit!
Have you got any advice for people getting into photography?
I’ve always said don’t take no for an answer. When I was starting the amount of people that I’d email for certain gigs and their manager or PR person would just say, “No” because I didn’t have enough credibility or because I wasn’t working for anyone. But I’d always try and find an alternative route in. Whether that would be through the support bands or the venue. I think if I’d taken no for an answer every time then I wouldn’t have shot half of the shows I shot in the first few years. It might be a bit cheeky going that way but it worked.
A lot of people hear my story and think it’s an overnight success but there are countless No’s and No You Can’ts along the way, even today. It still happens. It’s a lot harder than people think, but just don’t take no for an answer.
All images courtesy of Conor McDonnell. You can see more of his work here.