Guests and Volunteers: behind the scenes
Cameras are banned from the Crisis Rough Sleepers’ Centre, but as a long-term volunteer I was given permission to photograph a series of portraits during the 2010 night shift. I wanted to depict the dignified relationships that form between guests and volunteers and also to question perceptions of homelessness: by asking my subjects to remove their identification it would make it unclear who was the guest and who was the volunteer.
It had taken several weeks to get final approval for this project, so on the first night at the Centre I was really excited to begin. It only took me a little while to realise that my biggest challenge was still ahead of me: finding people who wanted to take part.
One thing I knew from previous years volunteering was that the Centre has it’s own rhythms and body language. I couldn’t just turn up and start photographing. Instead, I unpacked my cameras and waited.
Gradually conversations developed and people became interested in what I was doing and why. I explained the ideas behind the project and how the final images would be used. Octavio and James, who had struck up a friendship, asked to be photographed together.
I started by taking test shots on my digital camera to check composition. Sometimes portraits look right straight away, but from my experience this is the exception and not the rule. Really good portraits have to be earned.
When everything looks about right, I switch to my film camera. It uses large negatives and creates a richness my digital cameras can’t achieve. It also requires time to set up – which is actually a crucial part of the image making process.
While I make the final adjustments my subjects wait patiently, often intrigued by the process. Some have even commented it’s quite meditative to watch and wait. At the very least it’s a novel experience for a subject to have a photographer spend so long over a single image of them.
It’s really important to my work that my subject’s sit or stand in a way they feel comfortable. I might ask them to shift position, or even location, but the final pose has got to be theirs.
Sometimes the whole process can take up to an hour from beginning to end. By the time I’m ready for the final shot I find my subjects are completely relaxed and during these last few photos they match my intense working method with concentrated stares. To me, this means we are both in control of the image being made.
Full details about the exhibition and private view here