in the (mind’s) eye of the street photographer

My intention wasn’t really to use this blog to write long pieces, but hey, I felt inspired, so let’s go with it.

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After spending months in lock down*, stuck in my local neighbourhood, and having grown very weary of the sameness of it, I’ve finally starting doing small trips to Zone 1 again. I’m still keeping clear of crowds as much as possible (always generally avoided crowds anyway – hah), still minimising my time on the underground, and still keeping my distance. Basically being as safe as possible, whilst trying get out for a bit.

As you enter my Tube local station, a sign asks whether your journey is “essential”, and on my first nervous trip after a 4-month break from public transport, I really felt it was. If not physically essential, then a necessary vehicle to go and do something that I know will improve my mood / mental well being; the explorer needing to explore and see new things.

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On Sunday I went back to a location I visited last week. Not an area I know very well, but the diversity of people, the colours, and the architecture drew me back. In the pre-10am Sunday morning quiet, and with the sun dipping in and out from behind some patchy clouds, I ventured off the high street, and let myself wander between high rise apartment blocks. And right away I fell into my ‘looking at things’ trance. I don’t know how to explain this state of mind, but I become both visually hyper focused and partially  “blinded”. Strangers have to pull me back by the sleeve of my shirt from walking out in front of cars. I step off curbs, while looking at posters in windows 10 floors up, and stumble inelegantly. My own mother could walk by me, while I’m pondering a note on a lamp post, and I wouldn’t see her. No, really, friends have accused me of this. 🙂

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I walk along a building, with its lawns at the same height as my shoulders.  When I look up, the seed head of a piece of wild grass, looks like a bouquet being handed from one figurine to another on the windowsill of a flat. It amuses me, so I look at it for a while, standing there smiling, before taking a picture. I notice a “Neighbourhood Watch” sticker in the frame; a curtain twitches, and I move along. A few doors down, a huge plant pot is decorated with a seafaring theme; ships and mermaids with “jelly bellies”, suggest there once were plenty of fish in the sea. In a documentary I watched some months ago about alarming fishing stats, the host bleakly said that one day our children will ask us where all the fish are, and we’ll have to say “we ate them all”. I can already see the headline in some shitty news paper: “THE MERMAIDS DID IT.”

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In a large window of an apartment opposite a cool, green square; three cool chairs. I wish I was in there, drinking tea in the sun. In the street below, a silver cover has been blown off a silver car; a half-disappointing reveal. Brown leaves are nestled around its wheels; silver, black and brown together. Fox colours. It occurs to me I haven’t seen a city fox in months. Maybe because I haven’t been out late, or coming home late this summer. That’s usually when we cross paths; post-gig and post-bin dive.

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When the sun starts to come out, I head back to the high street, and building watching, turns to people watching. I loiter around a major crossing; a high rise in progress offers a great back drop for people crossing the road. A guy in light blue 70s shorts, and long blond hair approaches on a skateboard; perfect subject. I have two beats to lift my camera, but a cyclist stops right in front of me at the crossing, making the shot impossible. Rargh. I can’t hang around too long after that missed opportunity; it’s hard looking inconspicuous / not like a dummy just standing at a crossing. Motorists look at you like “are you going to cross or what?”. You could take your phone out to “look busy”, but someone can cycle or scooter by and grab it, and the point is to look at your surroundings, not your phone anyway. You don’t want to look like a lost tourist either, because that just makes you look vulnerable on a busy city street. After three changes of the lights, I cross, but not crossly. It feels good to be out and seeing things.

A block further, I get to another good spot I discovered the previous week. It’s equidistant from a pub and a bus stop, so I can pretend to be waiting for a bus or to go grab a pint (read: more likely just use their loo). I’m just people watching really. In a building across the road, placards in the windows a few floors up spell out “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE”. No one else seems to notice it.  After a good few minutes, the perfect moment / subject comes along; success. [After having the film developed later in the week, it turns out it was taken on a double exposed frame, so this shot I was waiting whole minutes for was a bust – it happens. It was so perfect in my mind though.]

I catch glimpses of my reflection in shop windows as I continue up the road; not as invisible as I’d like to be. And old lady in bright summer shorts gives my legs a good look; paler than hers. Sorry, I’ve been inside a while. Outside a 1 POUND DISCOUNT STORE, I spot a well dressed older gent I saw a few blocks back, and whilst keeping an eye on him, I miss a dip in the pavement and almost fall on my face. A boy leaning against a wall across the road, looks at me quizzically. I saw the same kid last week in the same spot. It’s weird how you remember some strangers. It didn’t click then, but it clicks now whilst writing this, that the sameness of my neighbourhood these last months to me to me, must be the sameness of his neighbourhood to him. He looked so bored when I saw him the previous week. I laughed when my parents visited me in England for the first time, and wanted to do simple things like walk to the supermarket with me, but I also totally get it. It was a novelty. It wasn’t their local shop.

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I think as a photographer, I definitely look at things in a different way. More acutely. More dreamily? Maybe because I’m a writer, I create a narrative around things too. I think a lot of people generally enjoy seeing new things and places. At a time when travel options are limited, I find that, in a city like London, it can take as little a going to another neighbourhood to find a whole new world.

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*If you are reading this blog years after it was posted, you may not get what “lock down” refers to. In 2020, the world was hit by a major pandemic, caused by a novel virus. To help prevent the spread of the virus, it was recommend that people stay at home as much as possible, and restrict travel beyond their local area. I was at home, did not leave my local neighbourhood, and did not use public transport from the start of March until early July. I wrote this at the start of August.

 

 

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