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Pulling back the veil

Tracey Edstein  |  02 November 2020

Conor Ashleigh’s passion for social justice led him around the globe. Then he discovered photography as a powerful way of sharing the experiences of those he encountered.

Anyone whose work involves international travel has had to regroup in 2020. For visual storyteller Conor Ashleigh, Covid-19 has meant that his calling has been lived closer to home.

Home for Conor is Newcastle although he was born in Wagga Wagga and his primary schooling was largely in Kyogle, northern NSW. ‘I think of myself as a country kid who came to the big smoke of Newcastle.’ 

Senior schooling at St Francis Xavier’s College, Hamilton, a Marist school, was a turning point for Conor. His family bears a strong Irish-Catholic heritage and the values of home, church and school aligned easily.

‘My upbringing paved the way for me to have quite significant experiences in my school life. It was a kind of pulling back the veil – I realised this is what I’m really passionate about and it has a name − social justice. The brothers who taught me, and the Marian way itself, were very influential and those lessons have continued to be refined and contribute to who I’m becoming.’

After a Year 11 immersion in Cambodia, volunteering at the LaValla School for children with a physical disability, Conor established a student social justice group with the blessing of principal Br Hubert Williams. ‘Then I organised an alternative schoolies trip to East Timor, visiting the Marists at Baucau, the Dominicans in Dili and the Bakhita Centre in the mountains. I’ve returned to those centres multiple times.’


A series of post-school experiences – as well as Community Development Studies at the University of Newcastle – formed Conor and revealed a pathway that combined his creativity, love of storytelling and strong commitment to social justice.

‘I went to India for six months, originally volunteering with the Jesuit community in Kolkata. Here I made some lifelong friends. I was unwell at one point and my friend Siddhartha brought me photography magazines. We have collaborated since and India remains a place that gives me identity and connection to culture and people.

‘In India I started to realise that photos can have voice and tell stories and they have power. That knowledge of the possibility of photography grew as I came back to Newcastle, began university studies and continued to work in youth homelessness.

‘I was becoming a self-taught photographer, undertaking personal projects, honing my skill and my interest in the medium to create and tell stories around issues of social justice.

‘I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to this.’

The relationships Conor had formed with various congregations and not-for-profits meant that he could have volunteered indefinitely – but he had to support himself. ‘Once you start to transition from voluntary to professional engagement it becomes much more complex. I’ve had to work really hard and prioritise opportunities that paid me but I’ve still focused only on social justice.


‘Volunteering in short term stints led me to wonder − what happened when everyone went home? Change doesn’t magically happen because everyone wants change; it takes time and will. To be part of processes of change I need to be involved with people, places and communities for the long haul. That’s why I’ve kept connected to India, Timor, and to a lesser extent New Guinea, Nepal, South Africa – as opposed to just “dropping in”.’

A project that was close to Conor’s heart contributed to the celebration of the bicentenary of the foundation of the Marist Brothers in 2017.  ‘I was commissioned to live in community with Marist Brothers and document the lives of the communities over 18 months and 22 countries. The book that emerged was a visual meditation. I was able to comprehend the diversity of vocation, lifestyle, language and culture among the Brothers and that validated the diversity of my own life.’

The Marian way is important to Conor and he regards his membership of the Marist Association as a critical aspect of his Catholic identity. ‘The way of Mary draws on the characteristics of Jesus that have come to be identified as more feminine. I don’t agree that to be empathetic, to be heart-first, to be softer, to be open, is more feminine but that’s how it’s come to be understood. The Marian way is a helpful guidebook as to how I want to hold myself in the world.’

While in non-Covid times, Conor’s life is peripatetic, his anchor is his wife of eight years, Maryam. The values behind her work as an epidemiologist among homeless and drug injecting communities align perfectly with Conor’s way of being – but there are frequent separations.

‘I was very fortunate to meet someone who demonstrated and lived similar passions and interests. As well as being life partners, we’re partners in social justice and we have to put our relationship second, at times, to our work. Maryam works with the people Jesus would go to, on the peripheries. Those experiencing homelessness are some of the most vulnerable people in society.’


There is a remarkable intentionality in this couple’s lives. ‘We don’t yet own property and we’re not financially committed in ways most people would be in their mid-30s. That may happen in time but prioritising our security isn’t an option in terms of enacting our values.’

Over many years now, Conor has learned, ‘The most important quality in working with communities is the skill of listening. Really hearing people is crucial before we can even raise the camera. All we have to do as loud Westerners to realise people’s agency and voice is to be quiet.’

Conor looks forward to travelling again, ‘when the communities are ready to have me’. Meanwhile, the skill of listening can achieve as much in his own country as anywhere. 

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