I first became aware of Richard Renaldi’s work through his long-term project ‘Touching Strangers’. I was struck by the sensitivity and poignancy of a particular image that showed an older black woman, holding the hand and touching the face of a much younger white man. The brilliance of the image isn’t just in the sensitivity and poignancy of the image but also in the fact that the two individuals in the portrait were unknown to each other before Renaldi made the portrait. I have often and wondered about the creative genius of the person who had not only been able to conceive of this portrait before its execution but had the empathy and sensitivity to make it happen, to be able persuade two individuals to engage with both him as a photographer and each other as subjects in a portrait.
Renaldi’s brilliance isn’t just in being able to persuade two random people to touch each other and be photographed while doing so, though I think that on its own would be a powerful and compelling commentary on today’s desperately neurotic and over protective society and worthy of our attention. More brilliant is the insight he brings in the selection process, the people he chooses and recruits to his work. Renaldi isn’t just making a beautiful portrait of two people, he’s offering commentary and insight into the human condition, dealing with issues of race, age, gender, sexuality and class. Simply framing two deeply contrasting individual together in a single composition, individuals whom you would otherwise not see as being ‘together’, would also result in a compelling portrait, but it would also run the risk of feeling confrontational. It would highlight the divisions that exist in society but that would be all. By having the strangers touching in some way, Renaldi offers us hope. He shows us something about our compassion and the ways in which rifts and divisions can be healed. It is what I have always liked to call ‘the humanity of the person in front of you’.
This particular image is especially powerful and meaningful for me. It was posted in protest against to the terrible, but thankfully now repealed, American policy of separating immigrant children from their parents while their immigrantion status was processed. The whole premise of the Touching Strangers project lends itself so perfectly to this cause and this image is a powerful inditement of everything that was morally and humanistically wrong with the policy.
But the image also made me think about the broader premise of how society 'separates' children from adults, particularly men, and sees them as a potential threat. I regularly photograph children, adolescents and young adults because these are the themes that, for deeply personal reasons, interest me and resonate most strongly. But I am always very wary of how society regards me as a middle age man photographing children. Indeed, on one occasion I have had to call the police in response to the accusations and threats being levelled at me as a result of my engaging with subjects. So this image, where Renaldi has arranged for a young boy to physically engage with a grown man, who is also a stranger, resonates very deeply for me.
I’m a father of two young boys and being their father defines me as a person, but society doesn’t define my success in the same way and indeed, regards me as a potential threat to children by the very nature of my age and gender. This image is incredibly powerful is so many ways and ‘touches’ me deeply.