The subject of this exercise is a close friend, experiencing her first ever visit to London as part of her 60th birthday celebrations. The first decision to make in this exercise was whether the subject was to offer a returned gaze to the camera or not. I decided that I wanted to capture a sense of the wonder experienced by Pat on her big day out, her gaze taking in her new surroundings rather than being bothered about the camera. I therefore chose to capture Pat unaware at key points throughout the day.
The images are an attempt to tell the story of how her trip felt – rather than the usual tourist selfies of what it was that she saw. London is a vast and bewildering place for a first time visitor. Equally Pat said it was decades since she had last been on a train. The underground was a new experience for her. However she had a strong desire to to to the Tower of London to see the resident Ravens, this being cited as the highlight of the trip. While seeking to ensure the set carried a clear narrative, I wanted to explore this alternative angle on ‘tourist snapshots’.
I was mindful that my existing relationship with Pat afforded me a good insight into the subject. In For Every Minute You Are Angry, You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness (German, 2005) it is clear how much effort Germain had to put into building an equivalent level of relationship with his subject over an extended period of time.
The first image is of catching the train. Tickets grasped in hand, a bleary-eyed Pat is trying to take in the unfamiliar barrage of information from the waiting room screens: Which train? Which platform? Is it delayed?
Having arrived in London the next challenge was to defend the escalators to catch the Tube. I would have preferredPat to have been at the head of the group here but there wasn’t an opportunity. Making the subject small in the frame, surrounded by the metal infrastructure of the underground tunnels and escalators adds to the sense of vulnerability.
I note the expression of concern turns to happiness again at finding the correct platform. I tried to get a shot as Pat was looking at me but the others in the group weren’t. I think this image shows Pat to be adapting to her new surroundings and starting to enjoy herself.
On emerging from the underground at Tower Hill the Tower of London is in sight. We can’t see much of the subject’s face in this image but there is a clear relationship between her gaze and the dominant Tower on the horizon.
Finally, a hungry Pat expectantly watches the food being brought to the table. A relaxed meal to reflect on the day and take it all in. The decor has a brighter less oppressive feel than the others in the set, suggesting ‘mission accomplished’ and matched by the quiet satisfaction on Pat’s face.
Summary and reflection
Far from being close-cropped, these are all environmental portraits showing the subject in a wider context of her surroundings. There is only one where the subject looks directly at the camera which provides separation from the other group members, reinforcing her role as principal subject in the image (this would otherwise be too tenuous as a ‘portrait’. I think there is a logical progression and linkage through the set with a famous national attraction being the main reason for the documented trip.
I’ve attempted to ‘get inside the subject’s head’ for this exercise and seek to show her emotions, excitement and apprehensions over the trip to London. Others in the group took the expected tourist snapshots and selfies which invoke the typical ‘say cheese!’ mask that we all wear in these situations.
For this exercise I’ve studied the work of Harry Callahan for inspiration. While there are similarities, Callahan was able to simplify his backgrounds far more effectively than I have been able to in the shots. This precision makes the relationship between photographer (and viewer) more intimate and the meaning easier to pick out. That said, a big part of the narrative here is the culture shock of taking a country dweller who has never visited London into the large metropolis while still being able to isolate the key subject.