I’ve thought long and hard about why I feel the need to entomb my thoughts and pictures between some book board. Over the next few posts I’ll be talking about some of this thought process and why, at a time when photographs seem more disposable than ever, I think I’ve got something important to say with them.
In the world of trans-continental bicycle travel my ride was not particularly significant. Many thousands of people have completed much longer, more arduous and challenging bike rides and the bookshelves are well stocked with their tales. So from the start I’ve wanted to do something a bit different from the travel biography and focus on another element of my story.
I spent a long time photographing the people who helped me. The brief spontaneous acts of hospitality which made what could have been a rather repetitive exercise a joy. From the elaborate all-inclusive dinner, bed and breakfast followed by a visit to every living relative within a mile radius, to a brief gesture of goodwill at the roadside. Experiences which were impossible to predict and often barely lasted long enough to document.
After 2 years back home in the UK it’s clear that hospitality for the travelling stranger is harder to come by. Yes it can be found, but it is not as common. I can only speculate at why this might be. Is it that, having achieved a high standard of living, we are now more protective of it? That we have forgotten what it is like to suffer or go without and can’t see when people might be in need? That we don’t have the time? Can’t see the benefit? That hospitality is not a particularly important part of our culture we feel the need to uphold? Or that it is more likely to be thought of as a commercial transaction than a common courtesy?
In reality it’s likely a mix of all the above and more. So when we are presented with an opportunity to be hospitable the risks and inconveniences appear to outway the benefits and more often than not we pass the opportunity up.
What makes those who helped me on my journey special was that they overcame all these perceived risks and inconveniences: the worry that we might not get along, that I might take advantage, outstay my welcome or be a nuisance. In the brief moments they had to act they extended a helping hand and in the process they helped to break down barriers. They created an opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise have existed, for two random people to meet and learn from each other. Out of nothing they created an experience in the hope that it would have a positive effect on both our lives.
Now, I think this and all that it represents is a pretty big deal.
When I look back through my pictures of these encounters I’m struck that they are evidence of the prevalence of human kindness. The images and stories seem an antidote to themes in today’s world which undermine our trust in people: fear mongering news headlines, acts of terrorism, random violence or harassment. Facts and stories which tell us to take caution and avoid, but don’t tell us when to have faith. Messages which appear to have our best interests at heart, but which when followed without question can lead to predictable, boring and, most worryingly, closed-minded lives.
It’s odd then that of all the characteristics of my photographs, I like most that the people in them do not seem overly happy. My photographs do not show the gleeful encounters you might expect from an archetypal travel photograph. Instead, my subjects’ expressions show all of the uncertainties described above: doubt, scepticism, caution…
For me what’s significant in this is that I can see in their expressions the same doubts and uncertainties I experience when wondering if to trust someone. I can see they are susceptible to all the same thought processes as me and they ask themselves the same questions as I do… When does someone who trusts in people’s kindness become someone who is too easily lead, a mug or a pushover? At what point does someone who insists on being cautious become paranoid, boring or closed-minded?
Despite facing tricky questions the people in these photographs still decided to trust and help me. And for someone like me, for whom the inclination does not come naturally and is not habitual, this makes hospitality seem all the more achievable. These images make hospitality seem familiar, everyday, almost banal; as if it could be achieved just as well on my local high street as it is on the Silk Road.
Of course the truth of the matter is just that, hospitality shouldn’t be seen as special or remarkable. For most who do it hospitality is simple and everyday, and a natural extension of who they are and their outlook on life. The people in my photographs aren’t immune to the same uncertainties and doubts that we may have, but what unifies them is that they didn’t let this uncertainty dictate their actions.
It’s this little idea which I thought would make a fine concept for a book. One which can prompt some reflection and serve as a reminder of just how welcoming the world can be.
Next I’ll be chatting about how I’ve taken this concept and worked it into the design of a photobook, including why I’ve felt the need to bind the books by hand.
In the meantime, here are some of those quizzical looks from roadside Samaritans to leave you with…