Multitude, Solitude - Everyday Encounters with Strangers

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Opening words

We gather here today
Some of us friends, or partners, or family
Some of us nurturing our fledgling relationships with each other
And some of us, are, at this moment, complete strangers
Each of these strangers has the potential to change and enrich our lives, in ways we cannot yet imagine
Just as we have the potential to change and enrich theirs
By the light of this flame, let us consider the joy, and the possibility
That lies in the connections we are yet to make.

Reading: To a Stranger, by Walt Whitman

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

Message: by Marcus Duran

Good morning everyone.

I want to start this message in a slightly different way to the usual. I would like to make a request of you.

I would like us to make a series of pictures together. These pictures will not reside on paper or on a screen; they will not be made with a camera and won’t hang on a wall either. The pictures will exist briefly, and only then, they will only do so within each of our individual minds. I hope the experience we have will be a collective one.  

The only specific instruction to you is that when you hear me saying the word [capture], that you pause the picture that you have forming in your mind. Think of it as a freeze frame, or a photograph of what you can see in your imagination.

OK. If you feel comfortable in doing so, I would ask you at this moment to close your eyes. Let me guide you:

It’s 8.45am on a busy and rainy Monday morning. You are located somewhere in the centre of London. Imagine a station that you are most familiar with; it might be Oxford Street, Kings Cross or Bank? Or it might be somewhere else. You are descending into a particularly crowded part of this station.

[capture]

There are some delays on the network and these have just been announced on a pre-recorded message over the station’s loudspeakers. This update has increased the congestion of people. There are mixed feelings about this amongst commuters in the station. You and your fellow travellers might be late for your first appointment of the week. But you wait patiently as the cues of people shuffle their way through the gates.

[capture]

Once you are on the platform it takes you two or maybe three attempts to jump on to the one carriage that has a fraction of squeezing space available. You are now on the train and the doors close tightly behind you. You are finally on your way.

[capture]

You are feeling at ease. Take a moment to look at the people around you. They are all around you. Different heights, different faces. People are literally everywhere and due to their proximity to each other they seem frozen in both space and in time. You are in a contemplative mood and your curiosity guides you across the various faces in the packed train.

You make eye contact. For a moment you find each commuter uniquely interesting. Most of them will be engaging with something other than your eyes, though. At times your gaze will be competing with other people’s mobile devices or newspapers.

[capture]

Finally, one of the commuters returns their gaze back at yours. You are not scared by this. For a very brief moment you notice your own reflection in their gaze. You realise that to this person you are a total stranger. However, they look at you in a way that feels familiar.

This exchange is meaningful and for a few short seconds it creates a deep sense of connection.

[capture]

Please open your eyes.

Thank you so much for allowing me to collaborate with you in this way. Maybe it felt a bit strange? Maybe being asked to imagine you are commuting into central London on a Monday morning isn’t a sensation anyone wants to feel on a Sunday morning?

I hope the pictures you captured were interesting, though. Each one of them will have been very distinct. All of us will have captured very different versions of the same thing. As I said at the beginning, making pictures does not have to involve using a machine – I believe our imagination has its own lens.

My message today has come about from two sources of inspiration.

Firstly, as a Londoner, I’m often struck, overawed, humbled, by the vast quantities of people I pass each day on our busy streets. For the most part almost every single one of them will remain completely unknown to me. For good or for bad, as a society we choose to name the majority of these people “strangers”.

Therefore human relatedness in a city of 8.7 million people is mediated predominantly in the company of these so-called “strangers”.

My other source of inspiration is photography. As an artistic, social and technical medium, photography has a unique power to penetrate the illusion of the “stranger”. In the right hands – and through gifted eyes – it can sear holes through the multitude and capture moments of deep and complex humanity. It can echo or challenge contradictory fears we have of those we are not familiar with or who might seem different to us.

As someone who is passionate about photography, I have spent a lot of time observing, questioning and actively looking at the world around me. Nonetheless, I am aware that photography is a complex and highly subjective tool. Its uncanny likeness to our commonly assumed ideas about reality can produce a false sense of security; i.e. that through it we can rest assured that we have an accurate depiction of our external world.

But the digital age has brought renewed scrutiny to our understanding of an empirical visual truth, if there ever was such a thing in the first place. This medium is also enmeshed in the tricky politics and power-dynamics of the gaze, and who holds the gaze on Others. There is no such thing as a neutral gaze.

In London there are currently two important photographic exhibitions taking place. One is of the rarely seen early works by Diane Arbus at the Hayward Gallery and the other is taking place at the Photographer’s Gallery, where a seminal body of work by the lesser known but highly influential photographer Dave Heath is on display as part of a major retrospective.

In fact, I should note that the title for today’s message is taken from the one of Dave Heath’s books. Also the photographs I am about to share with you now are not in any order or chronology and are drawn simultaneously from each of the photographers’ works.

Both artists have had an incredible impact on the nature of how modern photography was understood in the last half of the 20th century, and the ideas they expressed in their work continue to chime with ongoing concerns into human relatedness in the 21 century.

In their overarching bodies of work Arbus and Heath were very different in their style, approach and the pursuit of subject. But what links both exhibitions and the very specific periods covered in these works – to a lesser or greater extent – is an overriding preoccupation and curiosity with “everyday” people existing and co-existing in public spaces.

The works here also make important contributions to what was the emerging canon of mid-20th century street photography, particularly in the United States. Street photography is a whole sub-genre of photographic practice, but the work of these artists seamlessly blends a contemporary documentary style, aspects of photojournalism as well as fine art photography.

This thematic link between both exhibitions is also amplified by the black-and-white context and also the similar periods during which the work was produced. This is the New York City of the late 1950s through to the mid-1960s. There’s a gritty, cinematic feel – yet a pulse runs through these images that is not too far away from our current experience of modern city life. The New York City of 70 years ago provides an early draft for our future megalopolis. So when we look at these pictures we can – at least as Londoners – relate in some ways to the semi-hypnotic experience of moving through vast crowds of people.

In the era when these photographs were made roughly 33% of the world’s population lived in urban environments. This figure is set to rise to around 60% by 2025 and 75% by the end of this century. In terms of the impact on the human condition, this is staggering change. When we consider the advances made just in the past 10 years within telecommunications and mobile technology, this then adds yet another complex set of layers to how we understand the relationship between ourselves, our environments and each other in the city.

The photographs here present a worldview where almost every city-dweller has the potential to be significant. No one person or interaction is spared from being relevant on a human level. The true power of photography is revealed right here: the invisible becomes visible, each subject shows its own sign of life. By humanising the multitude we can become more related to one another.

Dave Heath said this about his approach: “I do not categorize my work as documentary or photojournalism, but think of it as a manner of poetry or even drawing in a Rembrandtian sense. What I want of the work is lightness underlined with disquiet, where the viewer can enter and expand his or her emotional being, not in the manner of catharsis, perhaps, but in a sense of alleviation.”

The closing part of this remark underlines the reason I wanted to share some of these photographs with you today.

Apart from their brilliance and timelessness I feel that they transcend visual arts alone and provide the viewer with a powerful platform to comprehend the movement and connection of people through time and space. For me they push us towards a much grander notion of human relatedness and in doing so they tempt me to think the unthinkable, that in fact there might no be such thing as “strangers”. Our built environments, the everyday systems that shape our actions, interactions and our decisions, cultures and social conventions, et cetera – these factors of urban life can force us to be complicit in estranging the Other. But on a fundamentally human level we can and should try at all costs to make ourselves relevant to one another, whatever our apparent differences.

Diane Arbus said this about her photography: “I really believe there are things that people would not see if I didn’t photograph them”.

Granted, Arbus, like Heath, had a rare gift to see things through their lens that other people couldn’t – or might not want to – necessarily see. But I also believe that this ability doesn’t have to remain exclusively the domain and function of artists. By investing into our own imagination, empathy and curiosity in the way we look at the world around us we can begin to comprehend each other’s presence not as strangers but as uniquely human.

If cities are to continue to be humanising and hopeful places, spaces of reconciliation rather than alienation, we should resist the trap of narrowly defining or ignoring those we encounter in the everyday.  

Open up your heart and use the lens of your imagination to focus on the countless possibilities laid in front of you.

May it be so.

Reading: from The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration, by Vera Nazarian

On the late afternoon streets, everyone hurries along, going about their own business.
Who is the person walking in front of you on the rain-drenched sidewalk?
He is covered with an umbrella, and all you can see is a dark coat and the shoes striking the puddles.
And yet this person is the hero of his own life story.
He is the love of someone’s life.
And what he can do may change the world.
Imagine being him for a moment.
And then continue on your own way.

Closing words

In a city that can feel isolating, with connections often temporary and fleeting
Let us build a community that welcomes newcomers, and recognises them as our future friends
As we carry the light of this flame in our hearts, let us offer kindness to the people that cross our paths
Let us open ourselves up to the possibility of new connections
And let us pursue love and justice, both for the people we know and cherish
And for those whose lives are not connected to ours at all.
May it be so.