I’ve featured the wonderful portraits of London strangers by Nigel Tufnell on Little London Observationist many times in the past so I was thrilled when he agreed to an interview. A born and bred Londoner, participating in the 100 strangers photography project has given Nigel new insight into his city. He’s learned that good things can come from talking to strangers! Below, he tells us the story of how he started photographing strangers, one of his most memorable encounters and the camera and lens he uses to capture such stunning and natural images.
LLO: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
NT: I’m from London, born and bought up in West London. For as long as I can remember, I have loved London before I really knew why and without knowing it. Even as kid I knew there was something special about it. Driving along the A40 to the Marylebone Road there just seemed so many possibilities or getting off the tube at Oxford Circus or Ladbroke Grove.
I’ve always been passionate about photography, the idea of capturing a moment; that means something to me. My formal training is in furniture restoration, but I have earnt money in various guises over the years and in the last four or so years my photography work has extended and effectively taken over.
LLO: You took on the 100 Strangers photography challenge and now you’re about halfway through your second set! Tell us a bit about why you got involved and how it’s changed the way you approach the city and your work?
NT: Before I was aware of the project, I saw a girl sitting outside a rundown shop near Regent Street drinking coffee and thought she would make an excellent photo, so I approached her and just asked if she would let me photograph her. She said yes! I put the photos on my first flickr account and she loved them, so I got in contact again and we went out and did a longer shoot. It was fascinating talking to her about her ambitions to become a doctor and her education from a state comprehensive to Imperial College, her background and her Iraqi heritage. All that from a simple photograph.
Because of this meeting I found the 100 strangers project, it was quite a natural process.
Street portraits are instant and they are real and I love that they are really immediate. The people I want to photograph could be anywhere; it’s just a case of keeping your eyes open. I want to take photographs where I have an involvement and this project has made me realise that even more because you can really talk to people. It becomes quite powerful. Listening is massively important and really taking in what people are saying because the communication between two strangers is quite unique.
It has just reinforced my view that there is fascination everywhere in London. Sometimes you go out and don’t see anyone to photograph or you get a few knock backs and other times when you aren’t expecting it, you get some great people. It’s full of surprises; as Arthur C Clarke once said, ‘who knows’. It’s vast and there will be times when it’s suffocating and unfortunately there are quite a few wankers, but you just have to deal with that.
During the first 100 strangers set I was obsessed with it. I’m less so now, but it has definitely influenced me to be a bit more positive towards people. You learn by doing this project, about how to get things right and quickly with your camera and by talking to people and hearing their stories. That process influences other things you do.
LLO: Do you remember the first time you approached a stranger for this project? What were you thinking? What did you say? What was their reaction?
NT: I approached two people and just told them about the project. I was going to make a new account for my 100 strangers and hadn’t even done that yet; I just wanted the pictures. Their reaction was positive. One said yes, one said no. It was good having the 100 strangers project to talk about. It kind of gave me a sense of validity, but because I had approached someone before and the response was very positive, it felt normal.
Photo: Marwa on Peter Street Soho, London
LLO: Describe a typical encounter with a London stranger – what do you look for before you approach a person? What do you say to make them feel comfortable with you? How much time do you spend with them?
NT: Difficult to say really. I see different things in different people. Sometimes I see someone and I’m off. There is no thought. I just feel I want to photograph them. You have to weigh the situation and you don’t have too long to do that because people and situations are easily missed. People say never walk up behind someone, but if you are on a busy street it’s not a problem and needs must, there isn’t a science to it.
The shortest shoot was probably about two minutes and the longest was over an hour. It varies massively.
LLO: Tell us about one stranger that really stands out for you and why you remember them so vividly.
NT: There are many people that really stand out, but if pushed I would say a girl I met in Kingsland Road called Makada. She had had a very tough life and she and her twin sister had moved out of home at 15 due to a very difficult situation. They moved into a hostel in Camden, but there was no bitterness or even anger. She was at college and trying to do well for herself. It was just a very positive experience. We talked for over an hour and even though I have had similar length conversations and heard some amazing stories, both good and bad, hers was the first. Her openness and positivity touched me. It can be amazing how open people are talking to a stranger on the street. It was just a great experience to really have a decent conversation with someone who was a complete stranger; interestingly a lot of barriers are broken down.
Also all the people I have met up with again and photographed a second time have all been great!
LLO: What has this project taught you about yourself and the city around you?
NT: In many ways, it has just reinforced my feelings. I love the place, but there are a lot of misperceptions about it and media cliques both good and bad. People do have time to talk and that communication is so important. It is not as cold as we are always being told. London can be but sometimes if you try, things can be very positive.
The city is always moving. The buildings are changing and there is a constant flow of people coming in and going out, experiencing London and hopefully adding to the city. To make it work, it has to keep changing and evolving. The people just can’t be pigeon-holed. You really don’t know what you are going to get when you start talking to strangers. While you have to be wary, very aware of the situation, the positivity makes that less of an issue and on the flip side of that, it’s great to get positive responses from people.
The disappointment has been that while I walk the streets taking photos the disparity between rich and poor (areas) is getting more and more evident. I also think the project has reinforced my dislike for things that are too staged, things like adverts and magazine shoots where everybody looks the same. People on the street look great. They have real style and elegance, but everyday there are visions of the ‘perfect looking person’ looking down or at us to prey on our insecurities. The people I photographed weren’t prepared, but they had a certain belief that it was okay. I like the instant nature of that. These photographs aren’t manufactured; they are real and honest.
Social media is very big but I like the interaction, actually looking at people and talking to them in the real world.
It has taught me that you can be touched by people armed with a camera and a smile as long as you are willing to listen. It’s massively important to know your subject and if you have only just met somebody, you better start listening and then interacting to what is being said to you. I like to feel involved. I feel that every time I photograph somebody. It’s my way of breaking the prejudices forced upon us by social conditioning that says London is not for talking to strangers.
LLO: Let’s talk equipment – what camera do you use? Which is your favourite lenses for photographing people? How about a flash? Any post-processing?
NT: I’m currently using a Nikon d700 with either a Nikon 50mm 1.8 or a Tamron 24-85mm. I do a bit post processing but not much. I might enhance the colour or sharpness a bit, but I basically keep it as it is in the original. I want to see reality in the portraits.
LLO: Along with each photo, you tell the story of the person you’ve taken a picture of along with their favourite song or record. Why the music question? What has been the most interesting answer?
NT: I love music. I think it can be a great source of inspiration among other things. Everyone must have a favourite song or piece of music. It just helps to make people have a think while I try and get a few shots and then it leads onto other conversations. It is strange how some people who seem quite cool can like some really terrible music (my opinion obviously), but that’s just part of it. The most interesting answer was a man called GT whose favourite song was a song he’d written. He then proceeded to give me a copy of it.
LLO: Have you ever had a negative reaction when approaching a stranger to photograph?
NT: A few iffy moments, but nothing too bad. It can be a negative when you have a few knock backs in a row, but fortunately that doesn’t happen much and I feel if that happens I must get someone before I head home. It doesn’t always happen though.
LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery? What’s special about it?
NT: The Sir John Soane museum in Lincoln Inn Fields is great. In 1806, he became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy. He wanted his house and collection of paintings sculptures and artefacts to be preserved for the nation after his death. It’s not like a museum; it’s just a fascinating old house full of interest and it’s free!
Also, the Black Lion in Plaistow, an old coaching Inn about 600 years old and a real old fashioned East End pub. There is a boxing gymnasium upstairs that is home to West Ham Boys Club – a boxing club that produced Olympic medallist Terry Spinks. It serves great beer and Bobby Moore even used to drink there! A real top place.
Follow Nigel’s work on his Flickr stream: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stretch1000/