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.

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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

Pin Prick Pupils & Polos

The sun rises over Brighton beach around 5am during the spring and summer months. I am there for a Sunday morning but the revellers are still there for Saturday night. Just as the sun starts to rise over the South Downs the club goers start to spill out of their dark dens and crash like waves onto Brighton’s’ pebbled beach, blinking like nocturnal animals in the bright early morning light. It is a truly wonderful place to be. Perhaps powered by the endorphins of their all-night rave or perhaps by chemical induction (or more likely both) there is a strong sense of collectivism and love here. People are instinctively drawn to each other, clumping together into groups as if under the influence of gravity. It’s hard to know if the groups of people sitting on the beach are formed on the basis of long held friendships or simply the result of being caught up in the moment, of the shared experience of simply being there as the sun rises. My experience so far tells me that the answer to this question is less important than the shared experience in the moment. The collectivism may well have deep roots but in that moment those roots are superseded by the shared experience; that some member of that group might have only met for the first time that morning makes no difference.

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As an observer I feel like an outsider invading someone else’s space. The fact that I am there for Sunday morning and not Saturday night and I am on my own does seem to set me to one side. I don’t know if the apparent intrusion of a man with camera compromises any photograph I make in this situation, but I am happy to find out.

Having spent many Sunday mornings on Brighton Beach, I have found that some of these groups are indeed tribal in nature. Their collectivism is literal rather than spontaneous and metaphoric; they are living an alternative lifestyle, somewhat outside of the mainstream, subverting the conventional. It would be easy to judge this choice but one of my motivations for pursuing this project is precisely to engage with people whose perspectives, experiences and opinions might be radically different to my own; this is where the learning and insight is for me as a person. I have found that the motivation to photograph interesting people requires me to adopt an open and non-judgmental approach and that even if this adoption is something I have to contrive by force of will rather than by virtue of innate nature, the experience is positive and the result is lasting and hopefully makes me a better person.

I first met members of one particular collective on the area known as The Levels in the centre of Brighton about a year prior to this photograph. They were camping in the field next to the skate park although in reality it was less of a campsite and more of a makeshift outdoor living area, as if they had taken the space and belongings of a house and turned it inside out in an exploration of negative space. Now on this occasion I meet the same group again, this time expanded in number with others having joined them in that moment, lying easily on the beach and using each other as makeshift pillows or props. Time feels like it has slowed down for them; things are hazy and they are somewhere else. Their movements are drawn out, heavy and awkwardly deliberate, as if moving through thick tar. I sit down and join them to simply enjoy the moment.

The sun is now fully over the horizon and is pouring deliciously clean light onto the beach. Tom is one of the outsides who have joined this group in the moment. He is sitting opposite me with thousand-yard stare towards the east focusing on an abstract point so far off it might well be behind the rising sun. He has the most intense look in his eyes, his pupils are like pin pricks, his philtrum is encrusted with dried mucus that the group refer to anxiously as ‘polos’. He looks in my direction and I try to talk to him; he is responsive but struggling to talk. I really want to take his picture but I don’t want to do this without permission. We manage something like consent by simple gestures and he relaxes back into his stare as I focus the camera on his glassy eyes. Looking at him, I am reminded of the image by Don McCullin of the shell-shocked marine at the Battle of Hue. In that image, there is a numbness that is the result of the pain of battle. There’s an irony in the contrast with this image; here the numbness is chemical.

It’s easy to forget that the principle reason people do these things is because it’s fun; there’s a tendency to over analyse things, to try and find some metaphysical or pathological explanation for hedonism when in reality, the simple answer is ‘who wouldn’t want to feel this way?’ But still my thoughts run to the myriad possibilities that any one of these individuals might have experienced something in their lives that has caused them to want to numb themselves in this way. I know this doesn’t apply to Tom, but at least one or two of that group I have spoken to have hinted at such things. The result of those conversation is a strong desire to simply give the person a hug; to acknowledge their humanity and their value to society.  

 

 

George from Clitheroe

I grew up in what was at that time a small village close to the meeting of the three county borders of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Although effectively a suburb of Manchester, Poynton had more in common with a rural and working-class way of life than it did the emerging aspirational middle classes of the mid 70s. At that time, there was still an active farming community and the historic influences of small scale coal extraction were still easy to find. People lived in the ‘coal miners’ cottages’ because they had been coal miners rather than because they were highly desirable properties full of charm and character. The associated farming pursuits of wearing flat caps, carrying a large stick and drinking mild or bitter in the local pub were still evident in everyday life and you didn’t have to walk very far before you had to take care to avoid stepping in cow dung. Urban life may have only a commuter’s drive north but Poynton’s identity was still very much rooted in the soil.  

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As a child I would walk from our front door, out through the modern built semi’s of the 1970s aspirational middle classes and up into the local woodlands and green fields neatly bordered by wild hedgerows. Copses made fabulous dens and whispered adventure, open fields swirled with long grass and crawled with busy insects as well as small boys. My childhood memories are a bit of mixed bag (a bag I still carry with me today), but my happiest memories are of being out in the small foot hills of the Peak District, playing wide games and having adventures. Proper and unashamedly, boy’s own stuff.

Associated with this cultural heritage, Poynton always had a great summer fete on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Every year the large field in the village next to Poynton Pool is taken over by braying farm yard animals and an array of chugging steam powered machines. The behemoths would rumble in belching black smoke and fizzing with steam, the smell of burnt coal mixed with hot water vapour mixing with fragrant dew laden grass.

The smaller steam powered generators are simply wondrous machines; they would rattle and pop and chug in a rhythmic almost alliterative sort of way, their fly wheels spinning with dizzying motion and connecting belts flapping and whirling. The noise was calming, almost hypnotic.

Chug, chug, chug chug, POP, chug, chug, chug, POP, chug, chug, BANG, chug, chug, chug….

The animals, hemmed in by five bar fences and studied by knowing farmer’s eyes would bray, whinny, moo or bleat. The farmers would stand like silent monoliths, studying the animals with critical eyes. There is a particular stance that must be adopted when undertaken such scrutiny; both elbows must be equally placed on the top bar of the fence but with one shoulder slightly dropped. One hobnailed shoed foot must be placed on the second rung up from the ground, the other should be at 45 degrees on the ground. Rough hands can be clasped in a number of ways, but a pipe must be in one of them and the obligatory flat cap should be pulled down just enough to shade the eyes and hide them from meeting the stare of anyone else. Conversation is kept to a minimum; an occasional approving grunt as a particularly fine sow or a well-set bull is paraded by is permissible, possible a few stunted words with some semblance of a sentence. But under no circumstances should any emotion be shown let alone expressed verbally.

Poynton Show is an institution; a past, present and future; the beating heart in the year of a village’s cultural heritage and I love it for all the reminisces and clichéd nostalgia of halcyon childhood days growing up in a semi-rural community that it represents.

I haven’t been in perhaps ten years but infrequent attendance is now part of its charm. It is what allows my attendance to feel so nostalgic. It means that when I bump into people that I perhaps only vaguely knew at school, perhaps didn’t even like at that time, in that single moment the serendipity of the meeting creates a shared sense of empathy. It’s like we were always friends and the literal time and distance and coolness between us over ruled by the shared space of the show. 

Above all else though, the event is still an agricultural show and a competition among those who still keep and farm animals. The judging is taken very seriously and the position of judge is highly regarded as one of status and importance. To give the show more credibility and avoid the inevitable nepotism of judging within a still relatively small community, the judges are mostly recruited from other communities. Artisanal farming and food production might be big business these days but the real earthly connection with hard way of life taken through inheritance or necessity is disappearing. The recruitment of judges who have a keen eye and innate understanding of the animals they are evaluating is harder and the net needs to be cast wider.

Clitheroe is located north of Manchester, in proper Lancashire. George was a judge, recruited from Clitheroe to the show because of his knowledge and expertise on farmyard animals. Even among the characters and stalwarts of Poynton Show he had clear and commanding presence. Who could not fail to notice the fabulous combination of beige moleskin jacket and matching Stetson and polka dot tie. You can’t see his cowboy boots in this frame unfortunately, but it’s not a massive leap of imagination to picture them. He’s an obvious character to photograph and I’m sure that with such a strong personal expression in style and dress, he’d be completely up for having his picture taken.

I am here with my two boys and my parents for some reminiscences and entertainment. I’m not really here to shoot portraits and Poynton Show is about as far removed from the metropolitan locations I usually work around, where unusual creative and artistic endeavours are not just tolerated but actively encouraged. I may be home home, but I suddenly feel like a stranger and rather than approach George, I spend a few moments looking gormlessly at the animals while fielding my own two critters, trying to prevent them from grabbing handfuls of prize billy goat fur and getting head butted in the process. Eventually I decide I cannot let him pass and put my boys in my mum’s care and take a moment to say hello.

‘Alreet, ‘ow do?’, George talks in classic ‘Lanky Twang’ and memories of Lancashire Hotpot and Eccles Cake supers at my dad’s cousin’s house under the looming presence of Saddleworth Moor come flooding back. I compliment him on his sartorial elegance and ask if he wouldn’t mind being photographed. As I suspected, he’s very willing and immediately pulls himself fractionally higher. The light is quite strong however so I walk him over to an area of shade cast by the row of large equestrian lorries big enough for a rodeo. I’d like to compose to include one of these trucks but it doesn’t quite work; I need his character to fill the frame so I step a little closer and the sun is momentarily obscured by cloud softening the light just as I take the picture.

George from Clitheroe goes back to judging the animals, I go back to herding my own flock and the show goes on.