Westminster Bridge: A Faceless Portrait A stroll in London by Jim Grover

Attending a recent Bruce Gilden workshop got my work from one assignment in front of at least 900,000 people around the world. Interested? Here’s the story about Westminster Bridge: A Faceless Portrait.

Bruce’s photographic style is completely different to mine, which is why I signed up to his recent 4-day workshop, here in London, organized by Leica Mayfair. I sought provocation, challenge, stimulation…and it certainly delivered on that front. His daily critiques were characteristically blunt, but also yielded a notebook filled with insight, advice and ideas.

Of course I knew of Bruce’s ‘in your face’ approach to street photography, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkIWW6vwrvM). What I hadn’t appreciated was his disciplined and consistent approach to his composed street portraiture; orchestrating (and even man-handling) the strangers he comes across to be exactly how he wants them to be.

One of Bruce’s challenges to us was to look for “interesting faces”. I spent an afternoon explicitly on the hunt for these – – faces that are really worth photographing and that one will want to look at again in years to come – – only to discover that they are (very) few and far between. A challenge failed!

Having spent a couple of afternoons exploring some of Bruce’s approaches on the streets of London, on the third afternoon I decided to go completely ‘off piste’. I set myself the challenge of creating a photo-story filled with people but which excluded any faces. Hence my series ‘Westminster Bridge: A Faceless Portrait’.

Westminster Bridge is one of London’s busiest tourist spots, connecting the Houses of Parliament with The London Eye and a range of attractions on London’s south bank. On a warm September afternoon, faces from around the world conveyed the typical gamut of tourist emotions: interest, boredom, energy, fatigue, companionship, contemplation, celebration, love, urgency, and irritation. But this time faces were ‘off limits’.

In some cases my subjects became complicit as I urged them “Don’t move!”, quickly closing in on them whilst simultaneously explaining why my camera was ignoring their faces, or focused on their hands, or their legs. The briefest of explanations seemed to suffice for most.

In other cases I was seemingly invisible amongst brief surges of tourists taking pictures of London’s landmarks or of each other, allowing me to capture fleeting moments without explanation or interruption.

I photographed both people as well as objects discarded on the bridge and the pavement to help ‘fill out’ my portrait; not knowing how all of these images might work together.

Inevitably, moments were missed: an Indian girl, her hands ornately covered with henna, apologised for not allowing me to photograph them for cultural reasons: “It’s not allowed”. A couple that I hoped would embrace as they gazed silently into the river below sadly didn’t oblige.

At one stage I, unwittingly, become a subject myself, snapped by tourists bemused by a man kneeling on the pavement photographing a tiny scrap of something lying on the ground!

As I reviewed the images that evening, unusually absent of any faces, I concluded that I just might have created something a little unusual, even ‘quirky’, but which nevertheless said something about Westminster Bridge and its fluid residents that afternoon.

I edited it down to a set of 24 images and spent a lot of time exploring alternative sequences (on a previous workshop with Carolyn Drake, newly-elected to Magnum, I had been amazed by how much time she spent on sequencing images into a flowing narrative, and exploring alternative flows, over and over again. You can see a recent series here.

I chose not to caption each image, intending that the sequence and title, ‘Westminster Bridge: A faceless Portrait’, said enough. Not captioning the images also allows the viewer to imagine their own stories. For the full sequenced series please visit this link.

After the workshop I decided I had nothing to lose by offering my series to The Guardian and BBC News on-line. I had no expectations of success, as both are flooded with images and photo-stories from around the world every day. But I hoped that the title itself, in the e-mail subject line, just might intrigue a busy picture editor enough to take a quick look.

Success! The BBC decided to run the story and used all 24 images in the sequenced order; placing it on the front page of the BBC News website for several days. Six days later the story had had almost 900,000 hits. ITV News, Time Out, and a Greek news website then picked up the story…and, in turn, ran the series on-line.

A filled notebook and an afternoon’s work shared with around a million people around the world…now that’s a worthwhile workshop!

About Jim Grover:

Jim Grover is a London-based photographer. He is particularly interested in photo-essays; he recently spent 12 months shadowing a local London priest to document a year of ministry. The resulting photo-essay ‘Of things not seen’ (www.ofthingsnotseen.com), shot on a Leica Monochrom, was exhibited in gallery@oxo on London’s South bank in March 2016, attracting over 7,000 visitors and extensive media coverage (including The Guardian, BBC, British Journal of Photography, and Leica Camera Blog. He is currently pursuing a variety of photo-essay ideas. 

To know more about Jim Grover, please visit his official website

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