Stranger happenings

I have always been intrigued by how text can be combined with an image to construct a meaningful photograph, but never really knew where to look for inspiration. Cotton (2011) offered me some inspiration in her first chapter by introducing me to the work of Gillian Wearing's 'Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say'. 

Gillian Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a white piece of card. 

Gillian Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a white piece of card. 

Wearing's resulting photographs 'revealed the emotional stress and personal issues that were occupying their minds' (Cotton, C. 2011, p. 30) that passers by would otherwise fail to notice. 

Usually it is the portrait photographer who is in control of the subject, being able to manipulate their muse within their studio. Wearing has relinquished this control, allowing the subject self-determination of the photograph's message. Her method transcends that of traditional portrait photographers, capturing the profundity and experience of everyday life. However, Gillian Wearing is still in control of the strangers she invites to be photographed and which images will be included in the final collection.  

Shizuka Yokomizo adopts a similar method of transference of control to the subject, who is unknown to her. Yokomizo's 'Stranger' (1999) involved her sending letters to potential subjects who would be easily photographed at a ground floor window, at a particular time in the evening.  Each willing participant kept their curtains open and lights on, posed in anticipation to be photographed by a stranger. Yokomizo produced 19 photographs in which the subject dictated the pose and clothing worn. Cotton (2011) likened the windows to mirrors, as if the strangers are looking at themselves, in anticipation of being photographed. The 'mirror' marks the physical space that separates the seer from the seen.

Angier (2007, p.72) sums up this encounter as: 

"a zero-degree confrontation in which the pre-condition for intimacy is present, but intimacy itself is left deliberately unfulfilled." 

A stranger stands at her front window, waiting to be photographed by a stranger. 

A stranger stands at her front window, waiting to be photographed by a stranger. 

Unlike most voyeuristic portraiture, Yokomizo's subject are aware that they will be photographed by a stranger, having been informed anonymously by letter, saying:

Dear Stranger, 

I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know...I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening.  

Angier (2007) points out that The salutation on Yokomizo's letter is a paradox, suggesting both intimacy (Dear) and distance (stranger). 

Some portrait photographers could be considered to have an air of arrogance in knowing how the sitter should pose in order to produce the right type of image. Both Wearing and Yokomizo allow us more information about their subjects by allowing them greater influence in creating the scene.  

Reference 

Angier, R. (2007). Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA

Cotton, C. (2011). The photograph as contemporary art. New edition. London: Thames and Hudson.