And so from winter sunshine to, er, winter sunshine. Hopes for Spring are clinging on by a thread, though the days are reassuringly getting longer. I got this straw hat for a summer holiday in Rhodes a couple of years ago; it’s now hanging on my cold bedroom wall, waiting to be used again. Hopefully this summer will be better than the last, or a few tempers might be frayed.
On windy, wet winter days like today, it’s hard to remember that the weather was ever nice. So it’s heartening to be reminded that, only two days previously, the sun was shining and bits of blue sky could be seen through the golden clouds above Goose Green. The starkness of bare trees, branching out like bronchioles into the crisp air, is so beautiful against the backlight of sundown in South London. Even though these bright days are often colder than the dark ones, I still want to get out there and soak up the rays. Hopefully, another day like this is just over the horizon.
Some people always look good in photographs, even unposed, and we hate them. Some people camp it up in photos because they’re clowns, and others pose like the super models they’re not. None of these people are me. I am normally out of shot if I can help it (being behind the camera is a good method), and when I’m in I’m normally gurning. I know that if I smile ‘properly’, there’s a good chance I’ll look like David Coulthard going round a bend in the rain whilst dying for a wee.
So why not disguise how I really look, and take back some control from those pesky photographers?
When I’m out being a pesky photographer, and as a change from buildings, trees, and bits of crud on the floor, I capture people. This is often for scale as they walk beside a large object, or because their actions support my twisted, internal narrative of the world. I might take these pictures without their knowledge, or when it’s too late for the subject to do much about it.
The resulting photos can show people’s faces looking back at me, either blankly or mid-expression, or as if to accuse me of stealing a percentage of their soul. Whilst these expressions are possibly insightful and often comical, they can be resentful too. With the latter, I make sure I look like I am already taking the next picture of a bin or the sky or something – a five second rule which obviously protects me whilst reassuring the offended person they were not the main focus of my shot. I do this because I don’t want to die like a paparazzo who couldn’t hurdle walls, but also because I feel a tad guilty as it’s kind of invasive to the subject. They haven’t asked to be in the photograph and they’re just minding their own business (whilst looking at my camera). This is probably why I am not a successful paparazzo.
Bare with me
However, is it really so bad to take such snaps? I mean, I’m not spying on people sunbathing in their birthday suit. Maybe I’ll get a good picture that will say something about the human condition and stuff, or get me printed in the national press. The subject will have forgotten about it two seconds later anyway (unless you’re stalking them), and it’s not actually illegal (unless the person you’re snapping is in a Greek military base). “Ah, but how would you feel if some gutless hound took a picture of you?” I hear you ask. Well, it might happen, I suppose, if someone thought I was a fading Formula One driver speeding to the supermarket to buy bog roll. But I can accept that I might be of interest to someone weird and, as a photographer, I’m prepared to do and be done by. It’s not like photos taken of me would say anything particularly personal about me or even be about me – I am nobody and anyone to the artist – but I prefer it to not be too in my face.
What of the people who do want a strange camera in their face, to be photographed by strangers; aren’t they a little bit weird? They’re unlikely to see these pictures, or be known to their viewers, so why bother?
I should be nice about them, really, shouldn’t I? They’re happy and don’t have a problem with the attention, and jazz hands are preferable to flailing fists. But when you want to capture a scene or activity as it normally is, as if a big digital SLR weren’t there, then it is quite annoying.
To be fair, I don’t know how possible it is for normality to exist when people know a camera is in the room, but a bit of realism would be good sometimes. Imagine if Andy Murray did his best David Brent impression as he served for the Wimbledon title because he knew there were tv cameras on him, but the Beeb just wanted to capture him winning the bloody tournament? Yeah ok, the cameras in this scenario would be documenting a real event, but it wouldn’t be a typical performance by the po-faced cat-gutter, would it? (to be fair though, I don’t know what he does when the cameras aren’t looking, apart from possibly pracitising his happy face on badgers). And Mr Murray has every right to behave as he wants on film. Possibly not with badgers though.
To see me looking back at you
So, I hear you cry, can we ever know anyone through the power of light and pixels, and do we care?
Well, yes and no.
We can try to look good or silly in a photograph when we know the camera’s on us, to give us a sense of control. We can try this even when we are not being compressed into a jpeg. But the ideal we want to impress on the world cannot protect us from the intentions of ruthless, self-serving photographers, the fiends. Captured in a split second, in a context not of our choosing, we are passive to the views of others. And whether we like it or not, we’re all in a stranger’s photo collection, possibly unwillingly or unknowingly, as the gormless goon catching flies; the waving random at the back, or the hapless miner of a nasal cavity. And that’s how someone out there will remember us, and forget us.
I love city breaks, and I love taking photos of urban life and how it looks in different cultures.
When I went to Rome in the Spring, I was looking forward to seeing the usual sights – the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Vatican – and generally being in a city with such an ancient history.
Of course, Rome has plenty of iconic architecture, as seen in tourist guidebooks.
Travel around the city on foot, however, and you’ll stumble across the more obscure and contrasting stuff: an ancient pillar beside a block of flats, a two-thousand year-old viaduct in a quiet back street, or a temple inhabited by feral cats. These things are hidden away, or incorporated into the scenery, and they make me wonder what modern Romans think of them, if at all.
Modern Rome has grown around the surviving relics, and continues to. Like London, it is not a museum; it changes and has all the modern features of a capital city – the dirt and grime, the hustle and bustle, the anonimity and vibrancy that comes with a large population. It is functional, and serves the needs of the people of a specific time and place. We don’t see that part of Rome on picture postcards.
After a day exploring Rome’s origins, I took this picture at a metro station, as a train stopped at a platform. With its bright graffiti, it reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of New York – a civilisation far way from Palatine Hill.
All images © 2012 deborah c fletcher