No strangers to photograph today, as I’m back working in the writing shed. So it’s off to the woods to shoot trees instead. Leading a writing workshop in Spain last year, I took a group of students on a walk; we stopped to “talk to the landscape”, asking questions of gateposts, stone walls and – yes – trees. That might sound like a strange activity, but it’s rewarding if you take a chance and go with it; in Spain it produced some beautiful writing, which we read to each other over beers and leathery jamon. Standing in the woods today, the wind forced trunks and branches together. Listening to the creaking wood, it’s easy to imagine that nature is in a conversation with itself: one it’s worth listening to.
Olivier, a French man in London. I was on my way to a board meeting at writers’ organisation 26.org.uk. Feeling knackered; still emotionally drained from a dear friend’s funeral last week. Olivier was leaning against a bollard on Borough High Street. “Are you waiting for someone?” I asked. “No, I’m just enjoying the light.” I enjoyed it with him for a while.
She was standing outside a laundrette in Pimlico, London, waiting for her wash to finish. I was on my way to visit a youth club project. “Can I take your photo?”
“Sure, what’s it for?”
“Nothing, just for my own purposes. Oh sorry, that sounds kind of creepy.”
“No worries,” she laughs.
I realise I’m lost. “Is there a youth club around here? Oh sorry, that sounds even more creepy.”
Us English, always apologising. #streetphotography
Henry says yes. John says no.
“He doesn’t want to be in the photo because he used to be a professional photographer,” says Henry. “He worked at The Times for years.”
I ask John: “So don’t you like photos?”
“Yes, but I know what can happen to them.”
“Are you worried about being in a paper?”
“No,” says John, “I’m worried about wanted posters.”
Henry chips in: “That’s right, he’s wanted by the Old Bill all over London.”
I love street photography, especially portraiture. I’ve taken candid shots of people before and caught some interesting moments. But I’ve never gone up to a stranger and asked them if I can take their photo. The main obstacle was fear, I think. What if they said no? Plus there’s that innate English awkwardness: who am I to go around interrupting people?
Then last week I was killing some time in Canterbury, taking a few photos of not much in particular. I was standing next to a friendly looking guy with a beanie hat and a beard. I though to myself, ‘you know, if you don’t ask this friendly looking guy for a photo, I don’t think you’ll ever ask anyone.’ So I asked him: “Can I take your photo?”
He said, “Sure”, and went to take my camera; he thought I’d asked him to take a photo of me. “No, I want to take your photo,” I explained. He said ok again, and went back to what he was doing: looking out across the street.
I fired two quick shots, showed him one of them – he smiled and said “nice” – asked him his name – Andy – and then walked off.
It was exhilarating. Like reading a story to an audience for the first time or performing live-lit in the street.
Having overcome the fear of… well, of whatever I was scared of, I wandered around seeing who else might catch my eye. Pretty soon, I found Mavis. “Can I take your picture?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. No questions about why, or what would I do with it, or why her. She just seemed pleased that I’d shown an interest.
Then I went for lunch in the Boho Cafe – cheese and cauliflower soup. When I paid the bill, I asked the owner, who was working behind the counter, if I could take his photo. He said ok, and then his wife, who was waitressing, joined him. They are Kristian and Kate. I was too slow to catch it, but right after this frame he kissed her on the cheek, and they had a quick hug.
I went away reflecting on my first stranger photos. I’d like to be able to take photos that look better than this; improvement will come with practice. But what feels more important to me is that the request to take a photo created an opportunity for me to connect with new people. Without a camera in my hand, I wouldn’t have spoken to Mavis or Andy; Kristian and Kate wouldn’t have had that mid-afternoon kiss.
A couple of days later I was back in Canterbury for a writing workshop. I met Deke, a performance poet. Asking for his photo seemed like a normal thing to do now.
Then walking around town I saw Carol. She was standing outside the Cath Kidston shop, waiting for her husband. Again, I don’t make any claims for the artistic or technical quality of these photos. For me they are reminders; visual mementoes of brief, unexpected encounters.
I walked around a while longer after photographing Carol. I asked one other person if I could take her photo and she said no: my first rejection. But it didn’t feel so bad.
This is Mick. He runs a South London charity called the Furzedown Project. Its mission is to prevent loneliness among the elderly. Mick organises activities like singing groups, knitting circles and exercise classes.
He’s 56 and has been at Furzedown for the last seven years. “It’s a nice place to work,” he says. “I come here with the purpose of adding a little bit of happiness to the world.”
Before Furzedown, he worked in residential care, sheltered housing and community development. “There was never much of a career plan,” he says. “But I’ve been lucky enough to work with some interesting people.”
“So is it fair to sum you up as a do-gooder?” I ask. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” says Mick.
“We used to go down to Kent a lot,” she said. “My mother loved it when the apple trees were in blossom. Daddy always took us in the car. We had a Ford 8. A year old it was. He was very proud of it. My sister and I used to sit in the back, giving a queenly wave to all the people we passed.”
When was this? “Well, I’m 87, so it must have been 80 odd years ago.” I show her the photo I’ve taken. “I look like an old granny,” she laughs. “I haven’t had my hair done in a week.”
With Alan the pianist playing the opening bars of the next song, she leans over to whisper: “You know, they’ve got nothing like this in Morden.”
On a visit to the Imperial War Museum with another tiny charity, South London Cares, I met Oun. He arrived in London from India in 1962 with £5 in his pocket and a selection of his mum’s jewels around his neck. “They called me the Maharaja,” he said.
Walking around the museum and eating a sausage roll in its café, Oun told me about his career in advertising (“I was creative director for Miss World”), the time he met the Pope (“but that was years ago”), his 22-minute audience with Mother Theresa (“she insisted I sit with her”), and how he came to own paintings by the Bloomsbury Set (“I have a Turner sketch, also”).
I asked if I could take his photo. “Why?” he said. “So I can remember you,” I replied. “Then no,” he said. “You’ll just have to remember me.”
They were singing Christmas Carols down at the old folks’ drop-in centre in Tooting on Wednesday afternoon. Quality variable. Then Bob, 81, who’d just been mumbling along until that point, steps up and offers to sing a solo. Oh, gawd. This will be awkward. But he opens his mouth and out comes a beautiful music hall ballad, sung in a powerful tenor. The room was in tears. “You’ve done a bit of singing then?” I say to him afterwards. “Yes,” he says. “1965. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.”
The woman in this photo is Sheila Melzak, a psychotherapist. She runs the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, a charity that helps child refugees. Specifically, her organisation works with children who have fled violence abroad, dreamed of finding sanctuary here in Britain, and somehow made it into the country on their own.
These children are all officially classified as “unaccompanied”. That means they entered Britain illegally, often hidden in the back of a lorry, with no family or adults to help them or to protect them.
They include people like Mimi from Eritrea, who escaped to England aged 12 when her father disappeared and her sister was killed. And Fakirzai, smuggled out of Afghanistan when the Taliban murdered his father. Many of them have been raped and tortured. Some have been forced to kill, or watch the murder of their parents. Others have been trafficked into the sex industry.
Increasingly, they come from Syria. Since I met Sheila back in May, the Europe-wide refugee crisis has seen the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Britain and seeking asylum soar. Thankfully, sole children account for less than 10% of the refugees seeking asylum here. But the figure for last year was a record anyway, at 1,861. In only the three months to July the number of lone children making it to my home county of Kent had doubled to 605. Admittedly, Kent includes the port of Dover, which is a major point of entry. But even so.
The beuaucratic asylum process these vulnerable children encounter when they finally make it to Britain is a huge shock to them, says Sheila. One of its most damaging aspects is that they find their stories are not believed. “It makes them feel crazy, completely crazy,” she says.
“It would be hard enough if you were an adult. But they are children. They don’t leap off a boat or jump out the back of a van and say yippee, I’m in England. They are exhausted, often ill and unprepared for the suspicion they experience.”
As they navigate the system, their credibility is challenged time and again. And the threat of deportation is always there. Last year, only about half the children under 17 who asked for refugee status received it. The rest were given some form of temporary leave to remain or had their application rejected, leaving them facing a forced return to their country of origin.
“You may feel safe to stay once you get asylum, but these young people are expected to live with a level of uncertainty that at their age they can’t manage. It’s very hard for them,” Sheila says.
Not only do they children feel isolated and helpless; they are often consumed by guilt and shame about why they left home in the first place and what’s happened to them on their journey. The effects include depression and other forms of mental illness. To help, Baobab offers psychotherapy and therapeutic activities like music making, arts-based workshops, social outings and philosophy discussions – “is it ever right to kill someone?” is a question they are especially keen to debate.
Sheila thinks of Baobab and its base just off a busy road in Holloway as a community, not a clinic. “That’s very important for people who have been forced to leave their own communities,” she says. “One of our aims is for them to find ways of living in a community again.”
When we met, Baobab was helping about 120 people, of whom 60 or so were regularly involved in weekly activities. Most of them were teenagers. The youngest was just six years old.
Working with these brave children is completely absorbing, Sheila says. “You learn so much about survival and resilience. Every day I hear about extraordinary ways that people survive.”
Today, these children are on the margins of British society, trying to get by on £36.95 a week, hoping they won’t get kicked out and sent “home”. But Sheila has high hopes for their future. “Our aim is that they will find a place in the wider community and contribute to this country,” she says. “And I believe that given the right support, they will.”
And it’s worth noting, Baobab gets not a penny of government funding.