Everyone is who everyone is.
The man sits comfortably on the ventilation housing rolling his own cigarette as the morning sun hangs in an easy fashion over the concrete flyover of Brighton Marina. His corduroy jacket is stylish and a wonderful amber colour, but it is, along with his baggy jeans, a little dishevelled and grubby. They could probably use a wash and the man doesn’t seem to notice that his collar is unevenly folded around his neck.
Beside him sit the accoutrements of his past time; a pack of Rizzla papers, a box of tobacco on one side and on a box of orange tipped filters on the other. There’s a device with a cylindrical opening at one end that reminds me of a pencil sharpener but which I surmise must be for combining the filters with the rolled tobacco and there is cheap penny lighter made of translucent red plastic. I can see the lighter fuel inside and notice that it is already half spent. In front of him on the grass is an old rucksack; clearly the companion on many journeys out. The man is concentrating on the delicate rolling process taking care not to jack knife the paper and ruin the job. The paper rolls easily into a tube in his fingers and he then caresses the thin paper with his tongue, sealing the open side down. He puts the filtered end into his mouth and as he does so I notice that he’s missing quite a few teeth.
It is such a comfortable moment. I watch for a few seconds taking in the composition and try to work out how it could be improved. I conclude it can’t; it’s a simple moment and he is framed perfectly by the green structure behind him. It is perfect in its simplicity and the consummate ease with which the man is now enjoying a cigarette.
He pulls something out of his pocket and turns his attention to it, Holding the object in his hands he draws sub consciously on the cigarette. I watch as he rubs the object, turning it over and examining it carefully. It’s a perfect moment and I have to decide if I want to disturb it. I can see it would make a wonderful composition but an approach now would change the moment. I could choose to shoot candidly but I’m not a fan of this; I prefer the engagement that making a portrait requires. I know lots of candid portraits work really well, it’s just that I don’t know how to make them so I decide to approach him.
I say good morning to him and he looks up from the object.
“’ave a look at this, what do think of it” he says without even flinching. I take what appears to be an old coin and turn it over in my hands. He’s been rubbing it clean, trying to revive some of it lustre. It’s about the size of a two pence piece but it is clearly marked as a one pence piece and the colour is more yellow than bronze.
“It’s an old Jamaican coin” he says, “Do you think it’s worth much?” I pause before saying anything recognising the potential for disappointment and in the gap he answers his own question. “Still if I keep collecting them often enough one day they’ll be worth something”.
“I’m Greg, what’s your name” I ask, trying to change the subject.
“Danny” he says as I hand him back the coin and we shake hands.
I ask him where he is from and he tells me he is Brighton born and raised. He lives locally and comes down to the flea market scouting for potential treasure, every Sunday morning. I comment on his jacket and cap and say that I really like the way they look and the compliment fails to land but it doesn’t seem to matter; Danny is relaxed and happy and appears to be taking me entirely on trust.
I explain to him what I do and why and ask if he will be part of my project. He looks up at me squinting a little through one eye from under the shade of his cap and asks what I intend to do with the picture. He is most concerned that it won’t be published in a magazine or something. His sense of privacy is clear; he is happy to engage in a moment where he can judge the intentions of the individual but he is also aware, perhaps through negative experience, that people are want to judge him poorly. Perhaps he worries they will think he is homeless; the thought had crossed my mind also.
I assure him that I won't be publishing his picture in any magazine but tell him it will appear on my website. He seems comfrotable with this.
"Alright, but I'll have to put my teeth in first". I smile and tell him not to worry. I step back a few metres imagining a square crop from the 3x2 frame and want to maximise the composition. I don’t need to direct him; he just sits there enjoying his cigarette and switching his look between the far horizon in front and me.
Afterwards I explain that I would love to be able to share a copy with him and ask if that would be possible. In my mind, I am worried he might well be homeless but then why would he be buying old coins if he were? I feel a strong sense of compassion and hope that I am wrong and indeed I am. He pauses and thinks for a moment.
“Yeah, now hang on, where can you send it to.....what's the address?” He thinks to himself. It’s slightly odd that he has to think so hard for the address he lives at. A myriad of possibilities occur to me; he is in temporary accommodation, it’s a half way house or perhaps there is something else happening here, the possibility of cognitive impairment. Again I feel a strong sense of compassion.
Eventually he gives me the address, thinking carefully about each line as he offers it to me. I open my notebook to write it down.
“It’s Danny isn’t it” I say, heading that title on the paper.
“Er yeah, how on earth did you know that”? He is genuinely surprised and again I suspect the possibility for some cognitive impairment.
“Ah you told me just a moment ago” I reassure him.
“Oh yeah, I did didn’ I”. We smile at each other as I write down his address. We shake hands again as I say goodbye and I leave him as I found him, smoking a roll your own cigarette.
I walk down the path and turn the corner towards the underpass of the road that feeds the Marina. At this junction, there are tall pillars carrying the opposite side of the road over the ground level. The sun is shinning at a perfect angle through the pillars of the overpass on one side and the car park on the other. It is creating two perfectly illuminated windows of light in an otherwise black shadow. They are perfect frames and I stop to hang around and wait for some one to pass by that I might use as a subject to place in these wonderful apertures. As I do so, my mind runs through the possibilities and it occurs to me that waiting for someone interesting to pass by is entirely unnecessary; I’ve already met the most interesting individual I am likely to encounter that morning. Only the fear of pushing my luck causes me to hesitate and then I remember what a wonderfully talented (and already very successful) young photographer told me recently about what she most attributes her results to: being prepared to be just a little bit cheeky and push your luck just a fraction.
I walk back to Danny and identify the problem; I don’t want to push my luck but that there is such a wonderful pool of light just round the corner that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to create a powerful image. I ask if he will be willing to be a subject again for me and this time he checks the request.
“I will get a copy of these right?” His question is wonderfully sincere and perhaps the most natural compliment that a subject can offer me. I assure him with my hand on my heart that he will and resolve in that moment that printing his portraits and putting them in an envelope will be the first thing I do when I get home.
I position Danny in the aperture so that his shadow falls backwards onto the wall. The legs are elongated aping a Giacometti statue and his expression is one of quiet contemplation. It’s an even more perfect moment and I am captivated. I click the shutter and in my head there is a low rumble of an explosion that signifies I’ve just photographed dynamite.