13 Aug, 2009

My best shot

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

They were moving out. I took this – then they got back to packing

I came from Finland to study film in London in the 1960s, at the polytechnic in Regent Street. That’s where we began the Amber collective. We decided to move to Newcastle in 1969, to live and work in an industrial, working-class community. I came upon this area – Byker – by chance, and fell in love with it. In 1983, I published a book, Byker, and put together an exhibition that toured the world. I didn’t think I’d ever go back, but in 2004 I got talking to someone who ran an education project there; she said I should come back with my camera.

This new project took a very different approach. It’s no longer OK to walk the streets with a camera and photograph anyone – especially children – without permission. So I got to know people, and asked them: if you were to put your life into just one picture, what would be in it? I was inspired by Renaissance paintings, where you have a carefully constructed frame and the subject is surrounded by symbols that describe their position in society. I wanted to give the people living in these flats a photograph they would be proud to present to the world, something to introduce themselves to their neighbours. People don’t often know the people who live next door. It’s my little fantasy: creating a virtual community through these portraits.

I wanted pictures that weren’t just people sitting on the sofa, looking blank. The man in this picture is a lorry driver, and at first he seemed a typical Byker lad, but he had a Lebanese grandmother. They were about to move out, and the whole place was in boxes. I set up the tripod and lights, and framed the picture carefully, but I hoped something spontaneous would happen. Then his dog, a bull terrier, appeared from the kitchen and leapt up onto the seat; the father started blowing soap bubbles. The dog got so excited – snapping, trying to catch the bubbles. I didn’t take too many shots, as it was over so quickly, and they had to get back to their packing. But the moment of drama encapsulates things beyond the photograph. There is a lot of fragility in this community, it’s very transient: to me, the soap bubble symbolises that.

Interview by Andrew Pulver

Curriculum vitae

Born: Kouvola, Finland, 1948.

Inspirations: “When I was 14 or 15, I saw a programme about a group of documentary photographers. I knew from then on that was what I wanted to do.”

High point: “Photographing Byker the first time round. It was picked up by the national papers, and it was all about ‘the petite blonde on the wrong side of the lens’. I was even courted for a Page 3 appearance. It’s amusing to look back at now.”

Pet hate: “Conceptual photography. A lot of British life has gone by without photographers becoming involved. You need to embed yourself in the real world, to understand what people’s lives are about.”

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