Touching Strangers

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’.

From the project 'Touching Strangers' by Richard Renaldi. Reproduced here with permission from the arist. Copyright Richard Renaldi.

From the project 'Touching Strangers' by Richard Renaldi. Reproduced here with permission from the arist. Copyright Richard Renaldi.

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 It was posted in protest against to the terrible, but thankfully now repealed, American policy of separating immigrant children from their parents while their immigrantion status was processed.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.


Nil by Mouth

Those of your that follow me will know I've been documenting with my father's dementia and the rapid path of deterioration he has taken over the last few years. This activity is part art, part therapy (so I guess that makes it ‘art therapy’) but is entirely about engaging with his condition in a bid to maintain my connection with him. His form of dementia – vascular dementia – is the result of reduced cardio vascular output which subsequently causes the deterioration of brain mass and therefore cognitive function. It was an odd experience to witness its onset, not least because of how early in his life it seemed to start. Indeed, such was the premature nature of his condition that for a long time the subtle shift in his behaviour was largely interpreted as something other than dementia. For a long time it didn’t even register that there was clinical problem; we just regarded him as having become a little OCD here, a little emotionally effusive there and just sometimes perhaps a tad inappropriate in genteel company.


This shift gradually become more obvious. The emotional effusiveness turned into cloying sentimentality and the slightly OCD nature of whether the car keys were mine or some other previously unidentified individual who might be in the house turned into frustrating stubbornness as he tried to rationalise who they might belong to.

His condition descended like a fog. Forward visibility slowly deteriorated but at a rate that simply caused ambiguity rather than certainty. For a long time we all wondered whether we were perhaps not over reacting a little. That ambiguity seems almost quaint now. There was a point when the fog was so thick that it was no longer possible to draw any other conclusion even if that point for us as family was some months before a clinical diagnosis.


Over the last two years the degree of cognitive engagement has rapidly dropped off but there has always been an emotional connection. Hugs have always been reciprocated and I’ve commented before that he is most engaged and alert whenever I point a camera at him. At these times the lens seems to cut like a knife through the fog of his dementia and we communicate again. His gaze is fixed and determined and his eyes sparkle.

I've often thought about whether documenting this period in his life was fair on him. He lacks the capacity for consent to publish these images so there is a moral question that needs to be asked and, with respect to my fellow photographers, we aren’t the most objective people to ask this question of. I can publish the photographs on Instagram and Flickr and receive nothing but approval and commendation, but ask my brother what he thinks and you’ll get a very different answer. Not unequivocally condemning, but certainly troubled.


On Monday he was taken into hospital and were told he had a less than 50/50 chance of making it through the night. I raced up to see him on Tuesday and went directly to the hospital. He had indeed pulled through the night but was (and is still) very ill. Of course, I had my camera and of course I had been thinking a lot about whether to document this point or not. The greatest challenge is the sense that I might be taking and posting these photographs precisely because I know they will be powerful and compelling and arguably the base of our motivation to act in any capacity is the desire to have that action recognised. It might not be that this is craven, attention seeking behaviour, but there is still a selfish component to the action.  

I thought these might be the last photograph I would take of him and thought particularly hard about whether I would or wouldn’t share them. As it turns out, by good fortune they are not, but that doesn't change my reason for sharing it. If they had been, I would still be posting it here.


My photographing him has always been about forcing myself to engage with him; with the man in front of the lens, forcing me to look and confront what is happening. I still think that is terribly important, at least for me if perhaps not for anyone else. At some point, one of the pictures I take will be the last one. I will post that one also when it happens. Life ends eventually but while we live, we have to engage it with every fibre of our being.


For Display Purposes Only

There’s a fine line between documenting exhibitionism and indulging in voyeurism. It’s a line I have always tried very hard not to cross especially with portraiture as to do so risks objectifying the subject. Part of the reason I tend to formally engage with my subjects is because I want to connect with and represent their humanity; that’s very difficult to do, perhaps even impossible, if you’re photographing them without their knowledge or consent. It’s not that I think candid street photography of people is bad, I believe that approach can say a lot about our collective humanity and tell a wonderful story. A lot of the images in my ‘Brighton Beach, Sunrise Sunday’ project aim to do precisely this, but my greater interest is always with the person in front of me.


Documenting exhibitionism is inevitable on Brighton Beach at any time of day, but in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the clubbers emerge like Mortlocks from their subterranean dens, it’s an occupational hazard. Partially clothed or even naked swimmers are the most common sight and making out on the beach is hardly a modern concept, nor is the public expression of sexual preference, after all this is Brighton and if not here then where?

On this occasion I had approached a group on the beach as I usually do. I’ve commented on this before but it’s often hard to read the dynamic of these groups; are they a group held together on the basis of long held friendships or simply as a result of the sense of collectivism that Brighton Beach tends to excite? This group had a consistency of dress and style that I really liked, a mixture of rock and rockabilly and it was apparent that they had all been to a rock night together, so I guessed that were at least some of them who were connected by more than just a shared night out.

Amelia in particular stood out for her sense of style and flair and I knew I wanted to make a portrait just of her. I asked her if she would let me photograph her. She agreed despite her outwardly expressing a lack of confidence, but her timidity was charming and engaging and I was happy with the results. A moment later another woman in the group, who I had photographed a moment before and who had expressed much more ribald confidence, quite literally bowled over into the scene. There was a moment when it became apparent that they were clearly more than just friends but perhaps not quite ready to acknowledge this. I asked what the relationship was and Beth, the more confident one, energetically explained that she was working on it at which point she pulled Amelia down onto the shingle and passionately kissed her.


‘Oh my god you’re so much more confident than I am’, gasped Amelia when she was able to draw breath.

This presented something of a quandary for me because I was framing for a photograph at the point this happened, so they both knew that I was photographing them. The act was almost a defiant public display of passion and desire, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate her strength of feeling and thereby woo the object of her desire, perhaps as a way of demonstrating her confidence and dominance, perhaps even as a way of challenging my position as a stranger with a camera, observing and taking pictures.

Whatever her reason, the passion was unbridled and reciprocated, and I found myself faced with the dilemma of whether I should politely retreat and leave them to it, or continue to photograph them. Obviously, I chose the latter though the experience was distinctly uncomfortable. It’s not as if they didn’t know what I was doing, quite the opposite. it was almost as if they were doing this because of what I was doing. And yet the creeping sense of eroticism in the scene and the growing sense of my voyeurism (though strictly speaking voyeurism is the pleasure of observing without you yourself being observed) only compounded my sense of discomfort.

So why did I keep photographing?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I think the best answer I can give is because I was curious as to what would happen, that is of course, less what would happen with them and more what would happen with me. Would I be able to remain focused, composed and objective or would my baser instincts get the better of me? It was almost like a self-administered test but one I hopefully passed.

It will be interesting to see if either of them gets in touch. I suspect not as it’s been a few days now and I’ve not had any contact but this is not entirely unusual. If they do it will be interesting to hear their side of the story.


Boy/Girl, Girl/Boy

Our appearance encodes many things about who we are. Some of these attributes are mostly beyond our control and so obvious that we take them for granted, for example our age and gender. Some are more nuanced and are the product of our personal choice and self-expression, for example our dress and our mode of speaking. These are the attributes we choose to adopt and show the world in order to define who we are and how we want others to see us.



When we engage with another person, all of this information comes to us in a flood, but our processing is so well developed that we make sense of the data in a heartbeat. It is this speed that gives much of the information the quality of ‘taken for grantedness’, the phenomenon that the information we gather is encoded with meaning that changes the way we see, think and interact with the person in front of us, without us being aware of that. We rely on this mechanism to tell us what the appropriate pattern of behaviour with a given person is. Just like the information about their appearance, this behaviour is also spread across the spectrum of highly obvious to the incredibly subtle

Sometimes however we meet someone whose appearance is ambiguous (or perhaps entirely contradictory), and the process that informs how we should behave with this person is thrown into disarray. What personal pronouns to use, where you look, your body language and what you say all suddenly become less apparent.

The most obvious attribute that we take for granted, and which informs the mode through which we engage a person, is their gender.  Quite how much the way we engage with people is encoded in gender only becomes apparent when we meet someone whose gender is ambiguous. The experience can be deeply unsettling, either because as humans we are programmed to be at least wary, perhaps even rejecting of, the unfamiliar or because our sense of decency and compassion for our fellow person means most of us want to engage respectfully. When we’re unsure of precisely how to do that, it make us uncomfortable.



But these moments, as unsettling as they might be, are  moments of truth and clarity. They are the opportunity to learn something about ourselves and the way we build society and culture. They are the opportunity to change those structures so that they (and we) are fairer and more respectful of others. As such they are important and precious.

My own insights into just how much of a role gender plays in simple human interactions began three years ago when my best friend came out as a trans’ woman. We have been friends since we were teenagers when we rode mountain bikes in the hills of the Peak District. We remained friends into young adulthood as we tried to find our way in the world. Like anyone else, our respective journeys have been challenging and at times difficult but we have always been friends and that was always a deep comfort to me.

There was always something about my friend that I couldn't explain. I felt it through the nature of our friendship, which contrasted strongly with my experience of other friendships. We were close but not full disclosed; emotionally connected but not physically so; caring but also slightly detached. I never imagined this unexplained thing was something as painful and significant as the fact that they were living the first, and arguably most challenging, half of their life in the wrong gender.



I cannot imagine how difficult the lived experience of gender dysphoria must be, but I am now more empathetic for it and conscious of how we behave differently with different people based on these unspoken variables. None of which is not a judgement or commentary on anything other than the differences that exist and the importance of being respectful, sensitive and empathetic to the humanity of the person in front of you. Meeting anyone who helps you achieve this is a treasured moment.


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.


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.


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.