April 28th 2019
Today I am indulging in a little nostalgia. I am free of child and matrimonial obligations and, being roughly in the area while visiting my mother, have decided to visit old university haunts in and around Sheffield.
It is a beautiful spring day; the sun is shining, the birds are singing and blossom is floating gently about the hallowed grounds of the cemetery like radiant dust. As a student in Sheffield I lived in the house immediately opposite the entrance to the grave yard, which, like most places and things in Sheffield, is situated on the side of a hill. A broad path runs up through the centre with many other smaller tributaries running of either side, leading to unseen nooks and clearings that perhaps in the past have been the secret rendezvous locations for furtive lovers. That path had provided a short cut to my friend’s house and I would regularly walk through it on my way to visit, at a pace brisk enough to betray my anxiety of being in a graveyard in the cold dead of a winter night.
Today though various people are spending time in the cemetery exploring the pathways and secret hiding places. It is a warm and almost comforting place in the sunshine. It’s also quite a substantial plot and recognised as a site of significance and historical importance. There are so many stories buried here, ranging from terrible misfortune to quirky misadventure. The macabre and the melancholy have become transformed by time into curios and curiosities to be collected by those who take the time to look and explore the stones and the temples within its grounds.
Mark and Nigel are here for just that purpose. Mark has found a book that documents some of these stories and he is looking for the graves of those he has read about. He asks me what I am doing there and so I explain about how I like to meet people and take their portrait in the hope that I can reveal something about the nature of our humanity.
Mark is Nigel’s carer; I saw them just earlier while I was parking, saw how Nigel’s condition was challenging to manage and, while harmless, still potentially distressing to others; at one point he had managed to drop both his trousers and under garments in the middle of the street and it is clear that while he is conscious and aware, there is a high degree of cognitive impairment. It takes a special kind of person to work with someone this vulnerable.
We talk about Nigel and his condition but there isn’t much he can tell me. I’m not thinking about photographing either of them as there are clearly issues of consent abound with such activity. But as we chat, Nigel seems to bond with me. He takes hold of my arm and hand and moves closer for reassurance or comfort, I’m not sure which but it’s clearly a special moment, perhaps more special for me than him as I suddenly engage in a very tactile way with his vulnerability. My heart opens and I sense his gentleness and the idea that has been growing in my head, that the greatest sense of our humanity lies in our most vulnerable moments, bursts forth. I decide to risk taking his picture.
I take a number of frames each showing Nigel in his different manifest states of waking consciousness. I am strongly reminded of the tragic character Benjy in William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ for whom waking time does not exist in a linear fashion but rather as a series of jumbled memories strung together in a stream of consciousness. And yet, just like Benjy, there is a rhythm to Nigel’s expression, a cadence that allows a glimpse into what he might be experiencing.
There is also an overwhelming sense of his innocence, his lack of malice and it strikes me that this is a rare and precious thing. Few people you will ever meet will have quite this lack of malice. We are all, mostly, capable of doing bad things, wicked things perhaps even evil things if the situation and circumstance provide us with the means, the motivation and the opportunity. But in Nigel there is no malice, there is only vulnerability and, in that vulnerability, lies all of our humanity.