For Display Purposes Only

There’s a fine line between documenting exhibitionism and indulging in voyeurism. It’s a line I have always tried very hard not to cross especially with portraiture as to do so risks objectifying the subject. Part of the reason I tend to formally engage with my subjects is because I want to connect with and represent their humanity; that’s very difficult to do, perhaps even impossible, if you’re photographing them without their knowledge or consent. It’s not that I think candid street photography of people is bad, I believe that approach can say a lot about our collective humanity and tell a wonderful story. A lot of the images in my ‘Brighton Beach, Sunrise Sunday’ project aim to do precisely this, but my greater interest is always with the person in front of me.

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Documenting exhibitionism is inevitable on Brighton Beach at any time of day, but in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the clubbers emerge like Mortlocks from their subterranean dens, it’s an occupational hazard. Partially clothed or even naked swimmers are the most common sight and making out on the beach is hardly a modern concept, nor is the public expression of sexual preference, after all this is Brighton and if not here then where?

On this occasion I had approached a group on the beach as I usually do. I’ve commented on this before but it’s often hard to read the dynamic of these groups; are they a group held together on the basis of long held friendships or simply as a result of the sense of collectivism that Brighton Beach tends to excite? This group had a consistency of dress and style that I really liked, a mixture of rock and rockabilly and it was apparent that they had all been to a rock night together, so I guessed that were at least some of them who were connected by more than just a shared night out.

Amelia in particular stood out for her sense of style and flair and I knew I wanted to make a portrait just of her. I asked her if she would let me photograph her. She agreed despite her outwardly expressing a lack of confidence, but her timidity was charming and engaging and I was happy with the results. A moment later another woman in the group, who I had photographed a moment before and who had expressed much more ribald confidence, quite literally bowled over into the scene. There was a moment when it became apparent that they were clearly more than just friends but perhaps not quite ready to acknowledge this. I asked what the relationship was and Beth, the more confident one, energetically explained that she was working on it at which point she pulled Amelia down onto the shingle and passionately kissed her.

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‘Oh my god you’re so much more confident than I am’, gasped Amelia when she was able to draw breath.

This presented something of a quandary for me because I was framing for a photograph at the point this happened, so they both knew that I was photographing them. The act was almost a defiant public display of passion and desire, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate her strength of feeling and thereby woo the object of her desire, perhaps as a way of demonstrating her confidence and dominance, perhaps even as a way of challenging my position as a stranger with a camera, observing and taking pictures.

Whatever her reason, the passion was unbridled and reciprocated, and I found myself faced with the dilemma of whether I should politely retreat and leave them to it, or continue to photograph them. Obviously, I chose the latter though the experience was distinctly uncomfortable. It’s not as if they didn’t know what I was doing, quite the opposite. it was almost as if they were doing this because of what I was doing. And yet the creeping sense of eroticism in the scene and the growing sense of my voyeurism (though strictly speaking voyeurism is the pleasure of observing without you yourself being observed) only compounded my sense of discomfort.

So why did I keep photographing?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I think the best answer I can give is because I was curious as to what would happen, that is of course, less what would happen with them and more what would happen with me. Would I be able to remain focused, composed and objective or would my baser instincts get the better of me? It was almost like a self-administered test but one I hopefully passed.

It will be interesting to see if either of them gets in touch. I suspect not as it’s been a few days now and I’ve not had any contact but this is not entirely unusual. If they do it will be interesting to hear their side of the story.

 

Boy/Girl, Girl/Boy

Our appearance encodes many things about who we are. Some of these attributes are mostly beyond our control and so obvious that we take them for granted, for example our age and gender. Some are more nuanced and are the product of our personal choice and self-expression, for example our dress and our mode of speaking. These are the attributes we choose to adopt and show the world in order to define who we are and how we want others to see us.

 Alex

Alex

When we engage with another person, all of this information comes to us in a flood, but our processing is so well developed that we make sense of the data in a heartbeat. It is this speed that gives much of the information the quality of ‘taken for grantedness’, the phenomenon that the information we gather is encoded with meaning that changes the way we see, think and interact with the person in front of us, without us being aware of that. We rely on this mechanism to tell us what the appropriate pattern of behaviour with a given person is. Just like the information about their appearance, this behaviour is also spread across the spectrum of highly obvious to the incredibly subtle

Sometimes however we meet someone whose appearance is ambiguous (or perhaps entirely contradictory), and the process that informs how we should behave with this person is thrown into disarray. What personal pronouns to use, where you look, your body language and what you say all suddenly become less apparent.

The most obvious attribute that we take for granted, and which informs the mode through which we engage a person, is their gender.  Quite how much the way we engage with people is encoded in gender only becomes apparent when we meet someone whose gender is ambiguous. The experience can be deeply unsettling, either because as humans we are programmed to be at least wary, perhaps even rejecting of, the unfamiliar or because our sense of decency and compassion for our fellow person means most of us want to engage respectfully. When we’re unsure of precisely how to do that, it make us uncomfortable.

 Alex

Alex

But these moments, as unsettling as they might be, are  moments of truth and clarity. They are the opportunity to learn something about ourselves and the way we build society and culture. They are the opportunity to change those structures so that they (and we) are fairer and more respectful of others. As such they are important and precious.

My own insights into just how much of a role gender plays in simple human interactions began three years ago when my best friend came out as a trans’ woman. We have been friends since we were teenagers when we rode mountain bikes in the hills of the Peak District. We remained friends into young adulthood as we tried to find our way in the world. Like anyone else, our respective journeys have been challenging and at times difficult but we have always been friends and that was always a deep comfort to me.

There was always something about my friend that I couldn't explain. I felt it through the nature of our friendship, which contrasted strongly with my experience of other friendships. We were close but not full disclosed; emotionally connected but not physically so; caring but also slightly detached. I never imagined this unexplained thing was something as painful and significant as the fact that they were living the first, and arguably most challenging, half of their life in the wrong gender.

 Alex

Alex

I cannot imagine how difficult the lived experience of gender dysphoria must be, but I am now more empathetic for it and conscious of how we behave differently with different people based on these unspoken variables. None of which is not a judgement or commentary on anything other than the differences that exist and the importance of being respectful, sensitive and empathetic to the humanity of the person in front of you. Meeting anyone who helps you achieve this is a treasured moment.

 

Transitions Volume Two

Transitions was my first focused photography project and while the experience was incredibly rewarding, it was utterly terrifying to initiate and shoot. It seems odd for a mature, middle age man with all the confidence of his life experience and achievement to back him up to express such abject terror at approaching a group of teenagers to ask if he can photograph them. I now know how a new teacher must feel on their first solo day on the job. The fear was genuine and rooted deep in my psyche’s fear of rejection, of being a fraud of being poorly judged. My initial interest in this group as a subject for exploration was layered with themes of exploring the idea of transition and emerging identity but it was also strongly influenced by my own sense of a lost youth, of having not been able to access and make the most of being either a child or a teenager. The project isn’t an attempt to live vicariously, but it is about confronting the anxiety associated with having experienced severe emotional trauma as a child.

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I had thought that the project was finished. I’d shot about 300 images and selected a set of about 40 images, mostly portraits and showed them in two places in my local town but mostly I had thought it finished because I felt I had reached a limit as to what these young adults would tolerate (in terms of an outsider invading their territory). I felt the need to give them some space and not outstay my welcome. But just recently a number of the subjects have approached me elsewhere in our town and asked me why I’d stopped coming down and encouraged me to come back from time to time. That was very touching and very revealing. It told me that the sense of anxiety I felt about becoming a nuisance was likely more in my own head than real.

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So, I have decided to try and re-engage and see what happens. The weather has picked up and the last few days have been very fine and dry, so the park has had a good crowd and the golden hour has now pushed back to a point in the day when I can reasonably escape for an hour or so without conflicting with either work or family life. But despite the rites of spring lifting my spirits, heading down to the park has been filled with just as much anxiety and trepidation as it ever was as the start of this project.  It is the same fear of rejection, of being a fraud or a nuisance; of being told to have my ‘mid-life crisis’ elsewhere. And yet, just as before, the process of engagement has been just as rewarding, the young adults that are my subject just as engaged, empathetic and understanding as before and so the only conclusion I can draw is that the sense of anxiety is only located inside of me and not anywhere else.

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When is Summer Here?

It's cold and the kids are bored. The remenants of the summer still lie on the grass in the snow and even though it's several degree below, my eldest would still rather be outside than in.

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The Odd Couple

It’s February but it’s still 29 degrees. I have walked into the down town area of San Diego from my cousin’s house in Hillcrest. The sun is very bright and direct, so whoever I am going to shoot will need to be in some sort of shade away from the harsh southern Californian glare. The streets are mixture of oversaturated light and dark pools of shadow as the buildings create natural corridors of light, but there is one interesting phenomena I see though that I’ve noticed before in Brighton down in front of the burnt out pier. In certain places the sun is hitting the glass front of a tall building at just the right angle to be reflected back down to the ground, creating an area of wonderfully soft light that is quite mesmerising. There is a security guard patrolling the area right where the light is falling and he has a gun so I decide to first ask if it’s OK for me to use the space to take a picture and surprisingly he says it’s fine.

 Kathy & Fern

Kathy & Fern

I ‘hang out’, waiting for someone interesting to approach. I’m a little on the back foot here because I am not sure of the rules; on the one hand, I know my English accent and British charm will go a long way. On the other, the political and social landscape in America has changed beyond all recognition recently. We might well be through the looking glass at this point and so I’m not confident that my quaint Englishness is going to carry the day.

I see Kathy and Fern approaching and immediately am drawn to them both and their potential for being the ‘Odd Couple’; I figure they are friends in their older age and perhaps rely on each other for companionship. Both their faces are etched with life lines and interesting expressions and there is a sense of independence about them I find intriguing. It’s a risk to approach them because I might have completely misjudged the situation but I throw caution to the wind.

I manage to persuade them to be photographed together and we move over to the spot where the light is falling best. I spend a little time just trying to get them relaxed a little and explaining what I do and what I want them to do but I can tell there’s a frisson of nerves from them both. I notice Kathy’s ‘US Army’ badge on her baseball cap and ask if she was in the army to which she says she served for 25 years in the logistics corps’. This helps as one of my other cousins (it’s a big family) served in the US military and was in Gulf One. This helps us bond a little and they relax a fraction so I step back to compose and take the shot.

As I look through the view finder I can still see the slight tension in them both. They are standing less than hand span apart, smiling but nervous, their arms hanging by their sides. I wait for a moment and then see them instinctively reach for each other’s hand, almost without conscious effort they find an easy grip. It suddenly occurs to me that my initial perception was way off. I lower the camera.

‘May I just ask, because it will help make a good photograph, what the relationship is between you, I mean are you friends have you known each other long…?’

I’m trying to be sensitive hence I skirt around the subject a little and try to give them the option to tell me whatever they are comfortable with. There’s a pause and before they answer they look at each other and laugh a little nervously and then pause again before Kathy says that they are partners and have been together for 25 years. The release of tension makes them relax as I tell them I am honoured and touched that they have shared that information with me. They tell me that it wasn’t easy to begin with, that there would be all kinds of terrible things called out to them as they walked down the street but that thankfully in recent years they feel they had gained acceptance.

It’s moments like these that really touch me as a photographer. They make me realise the bravery of people who just want to live their lives and find the person they want to be with. The shutter release is just a means by which these insights are revealed.

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Kathy