Sunday late morning and I’m happily eavesdropping on the Muirend to Glasgow central train. A young man nearing his thirties and a lady born in the thirties are settled in the seats behind me and carrying on the conversation I observed them engaged in on the station platform. It’s Mothering Sunday and many of the passengers are clutching flowers on their way to visit family or are with their families and heading into central Glasgow for lunch, a Mother’s day treat. Somewhere in the sub concious of my mind I’ve made a quick assumption that the young man and the lady are grand son and grand mother. I carry on listening.
Glasgow. It’s an amazing city. Brought up in Edinburgh and Skye I moved to Glasgow in my early twenties following 4 years at University in Aberdeen. What sets Glasgow apart from everywhere else I lived or travelled to is the incesscant nature of chat and being talked to. Pausing in your stride to cross the road, adjust your shopping bags, or admonish a child is a clear invitation to chat. Now that I have moved away from Glasgow it takes me aback whenever I return and then I remember how much I love it and I plunge into the never ending, always moving, great big cocktail party that is the citizens of Glasgow going about their day and pausing to chat to strangers every step of every day.
New York. October 2002. I’m on a brief business trip to New York. I’ve visited the city for pleasure several times before but I’ve never been here for work. Today I’ m travelling to one of our satellite offices in Stanford, Connecticut which means my commute is from Grand Central Station. This makes my heart skip a giddy beat. Clutching my coffee and danish, I’m trying to look cool and together. As we squeeze ourselves onto the train I jiggle into a space by the doors where I am dwarfed by two young be-suited business guys. I brace myself for the silence and avoidance that I have experienced in New York and London before. Then, as the train leaves the station, a rising buzz of chatter builds. The two guys strike up a conversation. It’s innocuous, ” How’s business for you?” but it’s a level of engagement I have never experienced before in the eyes down, don’t draw attention to yourself city culture. I can’t help but join in – I ask if this is regular chat? The guys tell me that since 9/11 people have conciously reached out to one another, made contact, added humanity to their days. I feel refreshed as I step from the train.
As I listen to the grandson and grandmother seated behind me on the train I become increasingly engrossed in their conversation. He is describing his job, he works in documentaries for the BBC and is passsionate about hearing people’s stories and giving them their voice. Recently, he has been working on war time stories and reminisences and he relates how they remind him of his grandfathers war stories. A bell clangs in my sub concious. If this was his grandmother..well, she would know these stories.. The lady starts to share stories about Glasgow in the war, the bomb factories, the work done and the loses suffered. As the swapped memories flow back and forth I am intrigued. They don’t know each other these two – but they are deep in conversation, sharing family tales.
This is part of why I was heading to central Glasgow that day – to talk to and photograph strangers. Inspired by Humans of New York and the UK based NOWPortrait there is a new and ongoing movement amongst British photographers to twist street photography. Not to merely silently create images (wonderful as these can be) but to engage with strangers and to elicit some of their story prior to making their image. The TMK girls had chatted about this and set ourselves a challenge to go out and bag a stranger to photograph. We met with, frankly, varying degrees of success. I found it hard in a place where I half know everyone. It struck me that Glasgow would be the ideal town to photograph a stranger. I was full of enthusiasm and musing where and who I might photograph while I was listening to the conversation behind me.
As we pulled into central station I could resist it no longer, I turned to the couple behind me and asked if they were strangers.”I’ve been eavesdropping” I told them “Aye, this boy thinks people don’t talk to one another enough and he started to talk to me at the station.” The three of us chatted for a moment or two. The young man confirmed that he believes that people should turn and talk to one another more and that he actively engages with strangers whenever he can. It was a short interaction that inspired me actively for the rest of the day. I made 3 portraits of strangers that afternoon and one of those led me to chat to another stranger and another…more of that and the images that go with it very soon.
There is a feeling that sweeps through the photography community from time to time of the solitariness of our profession. We tend to hunt alone. There is a recognised need to gain interaction – which is often done on line and strong bonds are formed there. This blog sprang from an online chat between strangers. But the idea that we reach out in real life and give of our real selves can be scary, threatening and overwhelmingly liberating and exciting. Do it. Just do it.
Read Rosie’s follow up piece on Photographing Strangers here