arresting images // eyes open

I wrote this at the end of last year, but fell ill, and never shared it at the time. Returning to it now, and feel it’s worth sharing still. 

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As a photographer, I like spending some time at the end of year to look back at images I took throughout the course of the year. On the analogue side, as a reminder of 1] how new film stock I tried performed, 2] new locations I discovered, and 3] how I (and different vendors) did on the development and scanning end of things. I’m pretty self-critical of my work, and this year I really struggled with inspiration at times, so I’m always surprised when I look back and see images I’m actually pleased with. My camera was a major companion this year, at times when I often wanted to avoid people. 

On the mobile/digital side of things, I like looking back at things I’ve seen and done; things I forgot about, in amongst the reams of mundanity. There’s something grounding/reassuring about still images alongside the video collages I create throughout the year, which people seem to love, but give a slightly skewed image of real life. It’s such a human desire to share things; visually (and verbally). It’s interesting to me looking at images I took on my phone of things I thought were interesting, beautiful, funny, ironic, depressing, baffling, anger-inducing, etc, and wanted to share. Versus the images that were just for me. A moment, place or thing I wanted to remember. 

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This morning I was reading the NY Times’ “The Year in Pictures” article. Seeing images taken by Lynsey Addario, Mstyslav Chernov, Tyler Hicks, and others highlighting the realities of the war in Ukraine, reminded me of the emotions they evoked when I first saw them earlier in the year. I often found myself abruptly crying watching the news, and seeing their photographic reports in print and online. They continue to produce images that are truly arresting. 

Elsewhere, the Atlantic’s “Week in Photos” (now sadly behind a paywall), with its often highly evocative pictures, used to be a stunning reminder to me of “something happening somewhere”. A weekly reminder of how big (but also small) the world is. 

The most moving photographic exhibition I visited this year was the (ongoing at the time of writing) Chris Killip retrospective at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. His ability to capture the human condition, and the melancholic beauty of different communities is just….wow. How do you gain this kind of trust? And capture the vulnerabilities. They are the kind of pictures you can stand in front of for a long time. And look into eyes that speak whole sentences. I’m in extreme admiration of his work. 

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Recently, a realisation came to me as I lay awake in bed one night, thinking about something I saw earlier that day and couldn’t push out of my mind. There are things I’ve seen throughout the year that I never photographed, but that really stuck with me. Arresting images in my own realm.  

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A couple of weeks ago I was standing on the platform at my local overground station. It was bitterly cold. My toes hurt inside my shoes. A train to a destination other than the one I needed pulled in. Through the window of the carriage directly in front of me, I saw the edge of a sleeping bag, and realised someone was lying across three small seats near the door. The train pulled away again after a moment, but the image stuck with me all day. I couldn’t stop thinking about them, waiting all night for the train to start running in the morning so they could be somewhere warm and safe after a bitter night. The vulnerability of sleeping in public. And the many empty homes in my city. 

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In late autumn I took a day off work to meet a friend for a photo walk; they’d got their dates wrong in the end, but I didn’t mind it too much. The sun was out, and it was a pretty mild and glorious day away from the confines of a desk and computer. Light cascaded off tall glass buildings, and people with coats flapping in the light breeze behind them looked like tiny caped super figures in amongst them. I happily walked around for several hours. My mood was high entering the station to go home. At the top of an escalator to go underground, I was confronted by a scene of a man dragging a small child by the arm. The kid was evidently terrified of going down the escalator, and was trying to grab at something to anchor herself to. He painfully dragged her onto the escalator, angrily shouted that she was being “stupid and embarrassing herself” and, terrifyingly, to “just wait until we get home”. It was spit-flying level rage. There are lifts at this station. No one said anything. I didn’t say anything, and hated myself for it. This scene stuck with me for many days. It pains me hugely to see adults behaving in a violent manner towards children. I still think about a group of kids being unnecessarily berated by their mom at a market I visited years ago. Years. And I still think about the pain on the one little boy’s face.  

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Trains / stations actually seem to be the location of many of the scenes that have stuck in my mind. It’s an unspoken rule on public transport in London, that eye contact is to be avoided at all costs, but it’s still a good place to observe people. Especially when they are engaged in whatever on their phones. Or in conversation with companions. Watching the dynamic between pairs or groups of people is fascinating. On a recent journey it seemed to me that most couples I saw seemed so very disconnected; maybe reflective of the gloomy time of year we are in. It reminded me of the following video. Of course we observe people only for a little while, but it was quite striking to me in the moment. 

On another train journey a month ago, on my way to meet a friend to visit a market in Rotherhithe, a guy collapsed in the seat in front of me. Shirt half open, looking like he had just had the best and most salacious time. For some reason his face stuck with me for a few days, smirking at some message on his phone, tucking a silver chain back into his shirt. So oblivious to everyone else. Why do some faces make more of an impression than others? It’s something I sometimes think about, whether some people notice us more than others, in a city where it’s so easy to feel completely invisible. Where sometimes you actively want to be invisible under the gaze of thousands of CCTV cameras. Constantly observed. 

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In my time in London, I’ve made many hundreds of journeys along one specific section of the Tube, where the train, if the sun is out, is reflected in the windows of houses alongside the track. It creates the impression that the train is snaking through these houses; I’m sure I have an inspired haiku somewhere that I wrote about this image many years ago. As the houses flick by, I sometimes think of the individual people in them, and each of them having their own life. Multiplied by millions and we all rub shoulders in this city. Each with our internal narrative (or music turned up loud drowning it out). Each with our own dreams, thoughts, feelings, responsibilities. Invisible but seen. Seen but invisible. 

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Many other, somewhat more transient images also made me pause in my tracks this year. A coat with its pockets turned inside out, splayed like a felled body on a cold side walk. An abandoned backpack with two toothbrushes next to it, like two dolls abandoned by a kid gone off to watch cartoons. A kid’s glove caught in a rose bush. Many notes on lamp posts, walls, shop windows, bridges; bits of graffiti ranging in tone, from outraged, accusatory, middle fingers up to humour and also, on occasion, pure delusion. The words on the street.

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I wrote a few months ago how I felt that I’d become disconnected from my local environment. I feel that things have come back into focus for me to a degree. I look, see, think, feel. I’m still overwhelmed sometimes. Images by the likes of Lynsey are so necessary. We cannot, and must not be blind to what is happening in the wider world. Something is happening elsewhere. Be aware, be horrified, be compassionate, talk about it. 

Life is also happening around you though. Do you see it?   

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