Preview: Athelstan’s Dream

Gary Ryan talks to photographer Robert George about his latest exhibition showcasing images taken of passers-by on the streets of various European countries

Hero image

Main photograph: Talat Hussein

Photographer Robert George is fascinated by people. “As much as I can watch a David Attenborough documentary and enjoy it, I think humans are the most interesting thing on this planet,” he says. “I view faces almost as landscape. Rather than being cut out by wind, by elements, by time, the tales on faces are etched by their successes and failures, having their good days, being low. There are a million different backstories.”

For the last five years, the 27-year-old has been surreptitiously capturing men and women going about their daily lives in the street, taking their picture without their explicit permission. His photographs often simply present the subject’s face without context, the background reduced to a flash of colour, to limit its influence. Images are subtly manipulated so you view the person through the prism of George’s own thoughts on them.

“If I recall someone having brighter or darker eyes, I’m happy to brighten or darken them. You see people who sit on the streets and draw the people who walk by, and it’s probably quite similar to that – I snap a picture and then take it home and make it closer to what I remember.”

In a world awash with flattering Instagram portraits – self-taken, cropped, blurred and put through a Hollywood-style filter – it’s arresting to see people as they are; the everyday now looks recherché. Added to the effect is that he frequently takes pictures of the marginalised in society, such as the elderly or homeless.

“Older people instantly catch your eye,” he considers. “These people have more value. They deserve their photograph taken more as their history is richer; their image will tell us more than that of a young person. It’s the account of a person who’s been at the event for the entire period against someone who’s caught the last five minutes.

“With homeless people, it’s interesting because it really is the only opportunity to do this photography with someone where they’re living. You can’t go into somebody’s house and do it without them knowing. These are people in their living environment hiding absolutely nothing.”

For his latest exhibition, Athelstan’s Dream, George – who grew up in the North East before moving to Manchester at 18 – spent three days roaming the streets of London. He doesn’t ever inform his “subjects” afterwards that they’ve been photographed, nor is their consent required.

“Any ideas I had about these people, if I went to speak to them, might be shattered or I might find the image a lot less interesting if I put a voice to it.

“If I wanted to sell one to Costa Coffee to hang on all their walls or if I wanted to use one in an advertising campaign, then technically it would be for commercial use so you’d need a release. If it’s a piece of art in a gallery, even if it’s for sale, it’s sold as a piece of art so you don’t get the rights to the image when you buy one. You just get a copy of the image. So you don’t need consent.”

As it’s art and he isn’t “Photoshopping somebody entering a brothel” he does not view this as exploitative. Even so, few people wear their imperfections as badges of honour. “You have to be relatively brave when doing this because although you have a legal right to take the photo, it’s not too outlandish for somebody to object. One guy – admittedly he was drunk – chased me down the street when I tried to explain.”

Having taken shots in the likes of Hungary and Italy, he has noticed that in the UK, life is lived behind closed doors. “There was one photo I took in Morocco of a man sat against the wall with another sleeping on his lap. I don’t feel I could do that in England realistically. Somebody would shout something or take a cruel picture on their phone. Rather than it be a piece of art, it would be up on Facebook.”

Robert George – Athelstan’s Dream, until 26 September, Common, Manchester.

Interact: Responses to Preview: Athelstan’s Dream

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.