I was off on a photo-shoot in Birmingham. Having arrived at New Street Station, with my printed off google map in hand, I set off briskly for the Custard Factory.
I thought I was on a road that would take me in the right direction, but after ten minutes or so, and having traversed some construction sites just south of the centre, I realised that I was lost. I couldn’t locate myself according to the map; it just didn’t seem to match the reality I was in. Time to ask people. The first man I met had a strong Eastern European accent, and spent a minute or so staring at my map … Another man approached, so I transferred my question to him: Where am I? But he was unfamiliar with this area. A third man pulled out his mobile phone and did a map search. Could have been a brilliant solution, having the path dotted across a map, but having transferred the key details of the travel directions into my brain, the confusion of the streets soon took over as I retraced my steps past the Mega-Bus stop – the same people still waiting. I thought I’d try a taxi, but they didn’t take plastic: “I can take you to a cash-point.” I walked on. The next man I met had an A–Z, and we both studied that, but he came to the conclusion that I was on completely the wrong side of New Street Station – something I was not convinced about.
There was a landmark ahead – the pagoda in Holloway Circus – so I set off feeling a bit more confident. But having turned right up a road, after a few hundred yards I lost any conviction that this was a sensible direction and turned back. On the opposite side of the road, I spotted a hotel. Surely they would know where they were. However, at the bar/reception, the young girl didn’t answer my question, but instead simply gave me a City Centre map. This was useful. But I still had to make the map work for me, as I still wasn’t quite sure where I was. Out in the street I unfolded the map and studied it, looking for the landmark. I stopped the next couple to ask for help in locating it. It was then that I noticed the You Are Here maps posted on posts at key intersections. I excused myself and went to study the one nearby. Now I knew where Holloway Circus was and the map on the post suggested a course of action. But for some reason, the two maps didn’t quite align in orientation, nor with the mental map I’d been building up in my ramblings… I needed to mentally align these three maps before setting off once more. At last I was ticking off the street names (and asking when they weren’t visible) and mentally cheering when the street ahead agreed with the map in my hand. Ten minutes later I arrived at the Custard Factory. This whole journey had taken me the best part of an hour. I was hot and sweaty, and grateful when Jonathan, who came down to reception to escort me up to the second floor, offered me a cup of tea.
The meeting had just begun. Rachel sat there focusing on the group and didn’t acknowledge me. I poked my head in the room, and Kiki, who was sitting in the corner, got up and joined me. She then sang my praises to the group – how I was a brilliant photographer, how I was a key part of the process, and so on. I felt a bit of an imposter; was I there on false pretenses?
We went outside and had a short discussion. Rachel and Kiki told me that, given how important my role in the project had been so far, they wanted to interview me on my perception of how the project seemed to me. They wanted my point of view as photographer. Oh, horrors, I thought. This was probably not the best time to download the contents of my brain. I didn’t think they would really want to hear about my current confusion! Anyway, they had to leave the workshop to do something else, but they would be back later. I would have time to get my ideas together.
Looking back, this whole story seemed to be a rich metaphor for how I felt about the project: I was bewildered with no idea where I was going. None of the people I asked for direction could give me any sensible clues about where I was or how I was going to reach my destination. I wasn’t even clear where I was nor where I was heading. I wondered if this was an accurate analogy, or just how it appeared in my frustrated and flustered condition.
Now I had to perform. I was here to take photographs of the group, led by Chris, assisted by Belle, and seven creative writers Writing West Midlands. I sorted myself out, drank my tea, cooled off a bit, grabbed a camera and set to work. It was just a bunch of people sitting round a mosaic of tables, with just enough space left to get round the edge of the room. And this was how they were going to be all day – they would only move into the spacious office next door during the breaks. Not the best place to take photos. The blessing was there were wall-to-wall high windows on two sides of the room, so a good enough amount of light.
So from time to time during the next five hours I took photos of the group. They were writing. They were drawing. The read out what they had written, and they talked about objects they had brought with them, and about what they had drawn. If I could get a good angle, I’d take a photo. Sometimes it would be of the piece of paper, or the objects on the table that they were referring to. One woman, a late arrival, had told me that she did not want to be photographed so I quickly deleted some photographs already taken – the rest would have to wait until I was going through them later. At other times, when they were in the middle of an exercise, I would take photos out of the window. Digbeth is an interesting area of the city; there’s a fine view of the railway arches and the city centre, and the near view of people in the street below and the artistic graffiti. I’d mooch around the second floor, photographing the architecture and the monochrome decoration of the Custard Factory: the round windows, light wells, visible plumbing and so on.
So here I was, in a position I had often found myself in before, indeed, had set up for myself: the observer. Part of the group and yet not part of the group. The watcher from the shore as others launched themselves out into uncharted waters. Not a lifeguard, more a daymark – the fixed points of my photographs providing future anchors of an evanescent experience. The “Oh, I remember that!” comments were yet to come.
I left before the end. As several members of the group had already gone, and the last exercise did not promise to produce anything visual, I took my leave, and headed back for New Street Station. Even that was an obscure goal at times. Birmingham is not well sign-posted, and on a Saturday afternoon, crowded with people. It was a relief to get on the train, and reflect on the day.
Later, looking at the photos I’d taken, I realised what it was that Rachel and Kiki liked about my work. I do capture people doing things – even if it’s not very dramatic. People writing, talking, listening to each other. My pictures show much more than the tweeted photos that Belle had been taking during the day. Actually, I was quite pleased with some of the portraits I had taken. I was feeling better about my Custard Factory experience; I had something positive to show for it. And after all, hadn’t I said to myself early that morning that I wanted to do more portrait photography. But not, it seems, was this going to be with a studio set up, but instead I would be doing it live in a situation over which I had little control. I’d got what I wanted, and as usual, in a form that took me by surprise. I got it – upon reflection. I get it. This is what I do.
© 2017 Peter Young