SEEN FROM THE OUTSIDE
a London Archive essay
I photograph because I have to. I suspect (can one ever really know such things for certain?) that I seek to affirm that life, my life, is worth living. I don't have the luxury of nihilism and, subsequently, of treating art as a substitute of religion. I turn to God for strength and for grace: I pray for my daily bread as is the Christian expression. I can’t defend my faith against the charges of humanism or the common ridicule of our days, neither of which has given me anything to live on. My relationship to art is similar: on the surface it is mystical and poetic but when looked closer, it is suffused by dependence and gratitude to the redemptive role it has in my life.These are private thoughts and pains but without understanding and accepting them as a necessity that precedes any consideration of my practice as art, I feel – or fear – that my work will be misread.
I tend to favour two approaches or ways of photographing. One is that prompted by novelty: seeing a place for the first time or after a long time and therefore, seeing it afresh. The other approach or method is that nourished by frequent visits to or dwelling in the same area. Both are primarily about seeing and looking and thus emphasize the subjective view, rather than the starting point – and therefore also the meaning – being, for example, a monument or a place of historic or other importance. The former of my favoured approaches especially is disparaged in some art circles because, they argue, it tends to lead to sensationalism, and as it panders the eye, it lacks critical thinking, awareness and meaning. But although I understand this conclusion having followed the logic of their reasoning, I disagree with it. My faith has led me to other conclusion about seeing, looking, the nature of knowledge and therefore also about art. I have explored some of these questions in my essay ‘For the love of Light’ and I hope I have done justice to it with this series.
My way of photographing reveals my mannerisms – or those things that I am infatuated with, depending on the point of view. I have made a few attempts to write about what I see and aim to capture but felt that I never succeeded; they escape the mechanism of photography as well as my pen.
I had been in London for almost 13 years by June 2016. I don’t know what to say of those years from today’s perspective; I look back with unease. I had had devastating experiences after which I drifted, in my own way. The EU referendum brought that painful status quo into an acute, harsh focus.
After the referendum I began to walk around and photograph London in a daze. It is often said that most people, if waking up to their house being on fire, would attempt to save their photos from the flames. Never before has my motive to photograph been so primal and so clear. I began to photograph to salvage something.
I set out with my camera – my faithful, somewhat odd Rolleiflex shutter speeds of which differ to the ones used to these days – and I walked and wandered, I looked and saw. I framed, composed, looked through the viewfinder, and captured. I favour the morning hours; I have always done. Its privacy, its calmness and its light. As most photographers I also look out for the late afternoon light. A few times I went to areas which belong to other eras of my life, and searched for views I remember seeing in the corner of my eyes then. I searched but only a few times I was able to catch what I had come there for.
But mostly, I discovered.
Why I went there, why did I get off at that underground station and not the other one, why did I turn left and not right, why did I decide to wander about certain streets and not others? ‘Just because’ is the best short answer I can give. There are several Londons that I could have explored. Instead, I have negotiated, sketchily perhaps, between the expected narratives of psychogeography and social documentary and my own, somewhat unarticulated, sense of direction where these wanderings should lead.
A few themes emerged along the way. In line with my political stance I photographed council estates as well as war memorials. I dropped the latter quite quickly because these monuments speak their own message so loudly. Early on I began to photograph bicycles, first unconsciously having formed an interest in them. I now know that I notice and photograph bicycles because they remind me of a few friends of mine who cycle in London. I also photograph dogs whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.
Because I live in Greenwich, it and its surroundings are treated with the luxury of familiarity. I have photographed there in all seasons and times of the day. I have attempted to photograph extensively but nevertheless, there are areas that aren’t represented. I wanted to take photographs in and around Brixton, for example, but when I got there the weather didn’t allow many to be taken. On another occasion, when I got lost in a residential area in West London, I realised that it would be pointless to venture into Ealing. One image of a row of terrace houses would do. This unsuccessful day, however, crystallised the nuances that make this poetic survey what it is. My decision to photograph what ultimately interests me is unfair but non-negotiable.
There are areas of London that I avoided consciously, for example the ground floor level of London’s high streets, part of the network of veins that brings the money into the city. It is a strange world. Walking through it is like getting into a crossfire of gazes: everywhere you look there are images of polished people who stare you. Some of them have their mouths open and eyes closed, as if hypnotized in a ritual or in an ecstasy. Some of them squint with their eyes and pout their lips, as if taking their stance against you, annoyed and defiant. The decision to avoid this part of London’s disposition is both personal and political. Ads exhaust me. In my daily life I favour the routes around town exposing me to the least risk of being bombarded by them. Similarly, I am frustrated with the demands and expectations of our capitalist society in which images, both as personal constructs as well as weapons of communication, play a crucial role. This topic is explored widely and in depth elsewhere, and since the core of this project is to collect an archive of London to take away with me, concentrating on its beauty and not on its defects, I saw no reason to photograph this part of London life.
Other fates have also occurred. There is a church, for example, that I have been admiring for years from the train window on my way to and from work. I knew, so I thought, that I would have to photograph it. One chilly, bright morning I walked there and was even more astounded by it when I saw it closer. I tried to compose a few images from several viewpoints but had to admit to myself that no other view than that from the train window would do. I didn’t take the photograph and I doubt I get a chance to take one from the train either.
In this city, the old and the new collide: that what was there before is always present. In some places, it is carefully preserved while on the other side there might be another remnant of the same bygone era, like a shop sign, which just had proved to be too troublesome or costly to remove. At one point I tried to compose the photos to fit as many buildings from different centuries as possible within the frame. In the city this was a particularly fun game to play even after realising that I was essentially also photographing the scars of the Blitz.
The unescapable experience that I have had of living in London is that of being an outsider, despite residing here for over a decade. Perhaps for this reason I have also seen London as strange. I had come to London thinking – or hoping rather, for I was not naïve – that here I would hear the sound of saxophone in my ears when I sat on a bench and looked at the city’s skyline. London however withheld her jazz tunes from me which I for a long time wasn’t able to forgive her. At that time, I was not yet a photographer and not yet aware of what I had stumbled upon when I was tormented by the discrepancy between what I saw and what I could reach, between the established narratives and my own experience. Therefore, in the first stages of this project I envisaged exploring the theme of identity, its fluidity as a human construction and its obvious parallels to a city under constant erasure and re-invention under the weight of its historic importance, in an accompanying essay but I soon found that I would only be able to preach and not explore; I am yet to resolve those issues within myself, which is a privileged position to be in, even as the liberal cause faces challenges across Europe.
I have chosen not to emphasize a coherent, underlined vision of London and wanted the images to be seen in succession: with the previous image still in memory, shifting one’s eyes between the photos and perceiving similarities, differences, one’s own experiences of those places and views as well as associations which naturally occur. In this flux of images, the odd corners of London are given the equal weight to its iconic monuments and places.
For all the wandering around the city when I looked and saw, framed and composed, reviewed and pressed the shutter, I did discover London. And yet, London remains as elusive as it did when I first moved here. I have discovered that I remain an outsider as well, a stranger among other strangers, but that this kind of existence might also be the lens through which London ought to be seen, perhaps even loved.
© Carita Silander