Strangers In a Strange Place

Early on a Tuesday morning in June I was almost alone on a street off Brick Lane, save for a homeless man standing behind me and what appeared to be a ghost sitting in front of me. Through the viewfinder of my camera I focused on an empty pair of worn, laced up brown shoes positioned perfectly in front of a black metal chair that had been left on the street. In my imagination an apparition filled those shoes and sat relaxed in the chair, looking back at my lens, waiting. After my shutter had clicked, the stranger behind me asked if I would like to take the shoes away, and when I declined he picked them up and carried them down the road with him. The ghost had gone.

Wandering down the street and into Allen Gardens I saw the man tying the two shoes together by their laces and throwing them over the branch of a tree, so that each one dangled next to the other half of its pair. I looked closer and saw that the tree seemed to be growing an array of footwear, with numerous pairs suspended from the branches, like pendulums being moved in the wind. It was the man’s creation and preoccupation, a home for abandoned shoes. I carried on walking.

This journey, and all of the others that I made during this project were born out of a sense of disorientation. Since moving to London four years ago to become a photographer and leave a career in law behind, I felt that it was both open and closed, full and empty, a combination of alienation and possibility. I passed through places vacuously because of my lack of emotional connection to them. In Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, Czeslaw Milosz explains it best when discussing exile. He writes, ‘I was quite aware that my indecision of which street to take reflected my loss of orientation in a deeper sense.’

Everyone and everything was a stranger or a strange place.

As time passed so too did this feeling, but I could often recall it during trips on the underground or walks through crowded squares. Attempting to explore this sensation I decided to make journeys across London and give postcards to strangers who inspired me in some way, inviting them to contact me if they would like to be photographed. I planned to make their portrait and then revisit the place where we had met, making a photograph of the area based on the relationship we had formed. I wanted to momentarily connect myself with the person and the person with the place.

At first I was timid and reserved. Too aware of myself as I approached desired subjects, I struggled to articulate my ideas to them. Often I had to live with missing opportunities because of my own doubt. After a while though this fear dissipated and I became present and attentive. I followed people of interest off buses, on to tubes, wherever they were going on their journeys. I once jogged the length of Portobello Road trying to keep up with a woman seemingly completely at ease with herself, who I’d already photographed in my head. She told me to speak to her agent.

I saw Imelda on the number 73 bus. She reminded me of my grandmother with her gentle, patient manner, and I followed her and her husband when they alighted on their way to see the doctor. Imelda agreed to take part, and when she arrived for the shoot the following day her husband was with her. He sat watching her in silence while we worked together. She explained that he’d had a stroke a year ago so she couldn’t leave him on his own. She had given up work to care for him and was still trying to manoeuvre through the shock of their lives changing so abruptly. Later that evening Imelda called me. She said taking part in the project had given her and her husband something to talk about for the first time in months.

On returning to the places where I’d met my subjects, I wandered for hours. Before, I’d been fearful of getting lost as my sense of direction never failed to fail me. But when I focused on the person I had met in that place and the photograph we had made through our encounter, losing my way became liberating and almost necessary. I began to trust that it was okay not to find my way back.

When I revisited the place that I’d met Patrick, the sight of the man and his shoe tree in Allen Gardens gave me an overwhelming sense of belonging. My disorientation became irrelevant when I realised we both had individual ways of navigating and making sense of where we were. In whichever direction we were going, the shoes in his tree were the subjects of my photographs.

 

This article accompanies a series of images shot for Issue 4 of The Quarterly.

The images can be viewed here.