Documenting Britain

Strangers in Paradise

I am embarking on a series called Strangers In Paradise named after the song by Tony Bennett. I will photograph people in the streets of the Northwest of England and sometimes further afield. It is an exploration of people in Britain in the tenties as well as an investigation into the happiness tenet of smiling at and speaking with strangers.


January 10, 2015

I am using this diary to document a process, a creative process, so it’s important to talk about the lows as well as the highs as they are an inevitable part of every venture, creative or not.

I have landed on a few plateaus since I started my project and at the moment I have lost the desire to go out and take photographs. I am questioning why I am doing the project and what it is about. When I think about the few hundred portraits that I have taken so far I just see a mass of images that don’t particularly work and it doesn’t fill me with great inspiration to go out and take more of the same.

However, I often use the word ‘despite’ in life. So despite feeling this way I made myself drive to Crewe today to take my 12 images. It was incredibly windy and indeed cold and my poor little pinkies stuck to the metal tripod, (everyone say ‘ahhhh’). To add insult to injury the sun was out and drenched everyone and everything in it’s ghastly, unwelcomed light.

Crewe is where they manufactured Rolls Royce cars until 2002 which is ironic as the place is possibly the biggest carbuncle on the face on the planet - ugly is not the word for it.

My Dad was a dentist in the town in the 70s, 80s and 90s and when I was 16 I worked as a carpet cutter at B&Q there until I was sacked for being a ‘surly, lazy, arrogant liar’. I must say I haven’t changed much.

It is a railway town and has one of the biggest train stations in the country. So when I arrived in Crewe today I headed straight for the station. I was directed to the information office to ask for permission to photograph on the platforms. I was met with a passive aggressive woman who might has well have replied with the Little Britain catchphrase “the computer says no”. She handed me a piece of paper to say that I needed to write to that address and when I looked a bit later I realised she had handed me a blank piece of paper.

So I took my 12 portraits. It was a slog. Usually 70% of people say ‘yes’ but in this town 70% of people said ‘no’. One chap even said ‘yes’ and when I turned my back he ran off. Now I am sure there are many explanations for this such as the cold windy day and the fact that it’s January and no one is at their best in January. So, in the end, it took me all day rather than the usual morning.

There is a big ethnic mix in the town, which I like. About 40% of the people I spoke to were Eastern European and I can only conjecture that this is partly due to all the railway arteries that pump people into the town.

So coming back to my original doubts and thoughts I am reassessing my priorities with the project. I think the desire to document the North West of England is confusing what I am wanting to do. If at the end of the project there is a slight flavour of the towns and cities that I have visited then great but I am not doing it proactively. All I am interested in doing is creating one or two nice portraits with abstract painters like Miro and Klee in my mind, i.e. their use of colours and compositions. I will still visit towns in Cheshire, Merseyside and Lancashire but I am no longer interested in a documentary side to my work.

And finally, I believe the best work is often honest and therefore I am publishing all my images week in, week out. Therefore most of them will be inadequate with one or two that might hit the mark. I want to experiment and when you experiment you often fail and it is in the attempt to understand why you failed that you learn something new. So I will continue this process. The attached image is of Diane Arbus’ contact sheet which is heartening as most, if not all, photographers only have a particular success rate. Cartier-Bresson, for example, said it was about 8 per year.