After a few exposures I noticed the blue empty bottle of cider on the grass beside him and decided to leave it there in the frame. Perhaps you didn’t know it was a cider bottle before I told you and perhaps you also didn’t know that he was slightly inebriated when this image was made but we both now know that the bottle wasn’t his.
But I left the bottle in the frame.
We saw him from a distance, meandering down the road, within slow considered movements of feet that didn’t raise far from off the ground.
His feet taking off yet never reaching escape velocity before falling back to earth. He seemed like a man who was falling at that moment, at least, just at that moment; as I don’t know him - I will never know him. But he greeted us with a smile, warmth and patience and he let me photograph him alongside a road that saw cars drive by into worlds that I would never know.
Photographers take and rarely give back much, if anything, in return to those they are taking from. We often use words such as collaboration, empathy and bearing witness, to the lives of others but above all we take. Take that which isn’t ours and then appropriate it to our ends and means. No matter how well intentioned, socially concerned or earnest - we come first.
So why do people, strangers, submit themselves to this? To be photographed by me? What do they gain? Perhaps, for them, it isn’t about gain. It’s about making a connection, about being intrigued by the interest of a stranger - in them - and the thoughts that someone, outside of this moment, will see them, know them. Will see that they exist; that they are here and not invisible.
Or they could just be inebriated.
Yet, this is my portrait; it’s not his, it will never be his. I will always come first in the relationship between myself and him and you - the viewer. You will always look towards me and the clues that I have given you to make sense of him. I will be the one who shares the anecdotes, the one who paints the scene and controls how you read him. I will be the one who anchors and then damns him by the word ‘inebriated’. I’ve controlled him - and you - by that word. I have created the context for him to be appraised, dissected, consumed. I’ve changed your perception of him, or maybe only reinforced it, as portraits are always constructed. Either by the photographer or by the viewer - but they are always constructs.
They can only tell us what we want to see or what we think we already know. Besides, how can one expect a 125th of a second exposure, taken during a 5 minute encounter, with a stranger, to reveal any more than that?
But we do.
We always do..
Up on a hill a figure sits on a small plastic stool. His back is towards us and he appears to be deep in thought meditating on the world of a road and a brick wall that fills the view before him. I watch him in quick glances and then walk by on my way through the park in Highgate.
Rumena is walking me through the area. It feels strange to have a ‘fixer’ in an area just a few miles from my home but that’s another story. Rumena stops then looks back at the figure up on the hill and says that we should approach him. We walk towards him.
Next to him a supine figure in a hooped cardigan lays motionless on the grass. Objects surround them, seemingly spilled from backpacks and a scene reminiscent of a small encampment presents itself to us. All that is missing is a campfire.
Rumena walks towards the figure. He pulls large headphones from his ears and a gentle smile appears on his face; as he responds to Rumena I look at the large painting of Tupac on his t-shirt.
He’d love to be photographed he says. His name is Peterson, he speaks in what I think is a South African accent but he’s Kenyan he tells me. His friend rolls over and looks up at us standing above him under the trees that shelter him from the world and then a bird shits on me. I feel a slap on my camera bag and know what this is. I take it off and see that it’s a mess of greens, browns and seeds.
Luckily Rumena has wet wipes.
Peterson is now standing in the middle of a path. Next to him, behind a low cut wall, a family in their back garden, sit and eat food. The smell of marijuana seeps from their direction as Peterson looks towards me. Behind the softness of his voice and calmness, he too, like his friend looks a little lost, a little groggy; seemingly unsure of what is real or make believe as if he’s just been woken suddenly from a dream he didn’t want to leave.
He asks for a photograph to be taken with an object that he has with him. I don’t know what it is - perhaps something from his act - I never ask. I think he’s a performer, an acrobat of some sort. He’s waiting to hear back about a job he’s recently been to an interview for he tells me.
We move back to the hill and I photograph him looking back out at the road. His friend is now sitting up and he too is looking out at the road. Soon Peterson will be gone, I think, I’ll walk away and he will sit back down on his seat and become another trophy in my collection of people that I will never know but think I do.
Email addresses are exchanged and photos have been sent.
I wonder if Peterson will remember this moment and our meeting on this hill. Perhaps now, as I write, my photograph is on his Facebook timeline, alongside a story of strangers who approached him when he was deep in thought. Relatives or friends thousands of miles away will click the like button and then hopefully the next timeline occurrence will be him celebrating the success of his new job.
I hope so.
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