It’s very unusual that one of my subjects becomes a subject because they approach me rather than I them, but this is precisely what Lewis did. With an almost naive confidence he walked up to me, introduced himself and declared that having watched what I was doing he had decided he wanted to be photographed.
His manner was immediately intriguing. He was wearing a black leather jacket with nothing underneath. His thick rimmed glasses looked like they might have misted over and he screwed his face slightly to compensate for the blurred focus. He had a ragged backpack on his shoulders and in his hand he carried a child’s foam cutlass that he confessed he had ‘robbed’ from a group of teenagers who seemed not to miss it.
I asked him what his story was and readily confessed to having been recently thrown out of college and that he was suffering from some sort of mental health challenge. He acknowledged that his mother suffered from bipolar disorder and that he himself had experienced high levels of anxiety and psychosis. His candour and honesty was immediately endearing and I was excited to photograph him.
He asked me my name. I introduced myself and in reply he told me that his surname was also ‘Gregory’ and did I know that it translates from the ancient Greek word ‘Gregorius’, meaning watchful and alert’. Despite being a self-confessed polymath and insufferable know it all, this was actually something I hadn’t been aware of before. As far as I am aware my name is simply the product of my mother’s fondness for the actor Gregory Peck. That it also foretold my proclivity for being both watchful and alert (after all what is a photographer if they are neither of these things?) is oddly serendipitous.
I asked him if he knew what I would need him to do in the photograph and again with remarkable composure and frankness said ‘yes, take my jacket of and sit among the flowers’.
Sometimes people are relaxed in conversation and then when you ask them to sit or stand to be photographed they become awkward and you can see the tension in their posture. I always try to find a way to translate that tension into vulnerability; I imagine that for the subject this can feel difficult or challenging in some way as the tension they are feeling isn’t something I’m looking to alleviate but rather capitalise on and use. With Lewis, his apparent confidence in his approach to me quickly translated into the ease with which he posed himself. It didn’t occur to me to try and reverse that dynamic until he spontaneously stretched his arms above his head. The resulting contorted shape was fabulous and immediately revealed the slight awkwardness and inner tension that I knew was bubbling under the surface but which was being so carefully managed.
I always warm to subjects, it’s impossible not to really when engaging even a complete stranger in such a personal endeavour. But of course, some subjects I warm to more than other and I definitely felt this way about Lewis.
Almost as quickly as he found me he thanked me and was into his next adventure. As he walked away, bag slung casually over his shoulder, I called after him to inquire as to how I might get the images to him.
‘I’m on Facebook’ he called back, and then turned his attention to the next engagement already unfolding around him.