Having taken street portraits on an almost daily basis now throughout the winter and into the spring, I have started to notice certain patterns that are emerging in my body of work. While I strive to ensure that I have diversity in terms of my subjects (young and old, all flavours of gender, ethnicity and style), I am drawn far more to images where the person across from me is connecting through their eyes but also through something more.
Until recently I would have found it difficult to name what that 'something more' was, but then I came across Charles Chessler and his 'Agreeable Strangers' project. Charles is based in New York City and started taking photos as a way of coping with his father being ill. Photography ended up filling a void that was created when he stopped acting because it wasn't fun for him anymore. Similarly, I found my way to this creative path following my own father's death and as a means of coping with the pressures of the daily grind as a school teacher.
I also find myself very much aligned with Charles' observation that the technical aspects of photography only matter to the degree that they serve our creative vision and interaction with the strangers we meet. For me, some understanding of the ‘exposure triangle’ and the tools of the trade are an important part of the craft, but I can neither afford, nor want to obsess about lenses and the more esoteric elements of 'writing with light'.
For both of us, street portraiture has as much in common with meditation or therapy as it does with creating art. There is great satisfaction when I get home and see that an image I've captured does indeed reflect the unique personality of the person I shared an interaction with, but even if my focus is off and they blinked in every frame, the meeting and connection cannot be eroded.
Yesterday I shot in my home city of Norwich for about three hours. In that time I walked almost 10,000 steps and met a young man who has been homeless for 18 months, a bodybuilder with the word 'sociopath' tattooed across his temple, two budding operatic singers, a man in a wheelchair following a brain tumour who, with the aid of a mechanical suit, has completed the London marathon, and a beautiful young lady who is studying for a career in the media. I met a biker philosopher, a self-proclaimed pirate and a gentleman who was 5 years sober that day and who invited me to his church!
In each case, when I photographed those wonderful characters, they looked right into the lens and, as Charles Chessler would say, 'dropped in' to the moment. They didn't meet me with a family album plastic smile or the kind of expression too often born at the end of a 'selfie stick', but instead they allowed me to bear witness to who they were in that moment. Some of those images reflect pain or solitude, some are joyful and some reflect guarded vulnerability, as they wrestle between the instinct to connect and the modern reflex of concealment and masking. It's a privilege to be there to capture whatever it is they are willing to share.
Like Charles, I've taken to leaving the people I photograph with a card which has my contact details and I commit to either sending a high-def copy of their portrait or a print if they are not tech-savvy. Because Norwich is a relatively small city, I will often bump into those same characters while out and about and I'll make a point of stopping to say hello and sharing other images I've taken too. There is an old adage - strangers are just friends we haven't met yet - that has certainly been my experience so far in street photography. I feel more attuned to my environment, more connected to others from very different walks of life and more grateful for the life I have.
As I gain experience, I think my images are getting better and I believe that I am starting to create something important at a time when polarisation and division is being weaponised by those with vested interests to maintain tribalism and otherness. Street photography is a vehicle which allows me to recognise and celebrate our shared humanity - to truly see who I am meeting in that moment, and to turn up to that meeting authentically. I try to ‘drop in’ and invite them to meet me in that sacred, fragile place. As the 13th Century Persian poet Rumi once observed, in 'A Great Wagon':
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.