London’s Invisible Onlooker, George Georgiou

Through the window of one of London’s many buses, George Georgiou is separated by the subjects of his photographs by scratches, weathering, and several yards distance. Focusing on what French anthropologist Marc Auge refers to as “non-places”, the series Last Stop showcases chance solitary fragments of a community as seen by an invisible observer. Recently, PhotoChronicles had the opportunity to chat with Georgiou and ask a few questions on what he’s found while passing through public transit routes. You can also purchase his books here.

Can you talk a bit about the process you went through to make these images? Did you stick to one daily route, taking note of the differences from ride to ride? Or did you go out of your way to try out different routes at varied times to get certain results?

My objective was to explore the city I have known from birth. Over the years I have lived in a number of different parts of the city, from the inner city to the suburbs, in the North, south and East. London has always been a series of interconnecting villages, all with their own populations, vibe and energy.  It was important, therefore, to represent as much of this diversity.

Buses allowed me to travel across the whole city, to go through areas I have never really had any reason to visit in the past, taking buses to neighbourhoods I only knew by name or haven’t visited for 20 or 30 years. I knew that certain neighbourhoods had various large ethnic minorities

who are an intregal part of London’s makeup, so it was important for me to make sure I passed through as many of these areas as possible. In the end I wanted to capture the London that I know, my London.

In making the series Last Stop, you restricted your images to only what you could see outside the window of the bus you happened to be riding. Did you find the experience of being at the whim of the bus and its route at all frustrating or challenging?

As a photographer it was a challenge I actively wanted to engage with. Composition comes very easily to me, which made me question my choices when photographing, my trained eye. In much of my work the frame is very precise and the subject and landscape very delibarate, I wanted to break out of this. I have a strong believe that there is always the possibility of an image in front of you, if you are willing to look and focus, you don’t need complete control to make something of interest.

I would try to take a window seat on the kerb side of the lower deck whenever possible, there are generally no more than 3 seats otherwise I would work from the top deck. The restrictions were principly the scope of my reach, what was in front of me, I couldn’t move from my position to get closer, and the movement of the bus. Added to this was a self imposed resriction of not wanting any part of the window frame showing or the inside of the bus and always keeping the lens as close to the glass as possible to avoid reflections.

I saw a number of great images that I just couldn’t take, they were just out of reach. But I never saw this as a negative. I knew that there would always be a possibility of something appearing in front of me. The challenge was to be fully focused, so not to miss what was in front of me. Often I would work 2 to 4 days in a row, so I was fully immersed. As for the bus routes, the nature of the work was for it to be about the random encounters we have with the city, so I fully embraced wherever the bus would take me.

The images themselves have a sense of aloofness to them – after all, you were literally separated by a barrier from your subjects. However, you’ve made a point to state that the project itself does not make you feel disconnected. Do you feel that the act of picture taking has created a connection or provided you with a better understanding of your community?

I would say that photography has always been an act of connecting for me, a means to meet people, see places and try to make some sense of that experience. Over the years my distance to the subject has changed, I no longer immerse myself so closely with peoples lives, I like to take a distance, a distance that makes it clear that I don’t know them.

The objective, as the project developed, started to go beyond a represention of London and became more about the experience of living in a city. How we move and experience this shared space, to capture the random nature of what you witness or see when you move through a city, those glimpses of interaction between people, what I call the mini soap operas being played out on the street everyday. We see something happening from a distance, we are not privey to the story but we imagine what is taking place. For example, what is the relationship between that man and woman, are they secret lovers or a husband and wife, are they breaking up, etc. It’s a little bit like when we are driving pass an accident on the motorway, we slow down and try to see the damage, not really having the time to understand what has happened or whether there is a serious injury, our imagination does the rest.

So the question of aloofness or disconnect, as you suggest and for want of better words, is partly how we exist in the city. We share space with just a diverse number of people, in a way, thousands and thousands of small tribes. We manage to co exist in that space because we are both disconnected and connected to each other at the same time. We accept and tolerate the diversity, we are part of it even though we might not know each other.

I try to address this in some of the photographs that only reveal the whole image when you open the book up. What appears to be 2 single vertical photographs in 2 different spaces opens up to show the viewer that it is one image.

Book spread – left page

Book spread- right page

Last Stop 2015, Edition of 950 books, Double-sided, concertina book with slipcase, 20 × 16 cm, 176 pages, 78 photographs, SIGNED

Last Stop specifically documents non-places, or areas designed with the specific intention of getting people from one spot to another. What first drew your attention to these areas, which more often than not are overlooked?

I wouldn’t say that is completely true. The bus, bus stations, bus stops and certain shopping areas and transport hubs are non-places but a lot of what I went through are neighbourhoods.  The bus is a non space that gets you through these neighbourhoods, so you can feel comfortable. The same with bus shelters, the word shelter itself means to afford protection. What fascinated me are the layers of history in the London landscape, how the history of London architecture is still vying for space, buildings that are 200 years old next to a modern glass building or a Victorian building with an Indian or Polish shop front. The organic nature of London, how new communities add new layers to the history of the place, keeping them alive. There are without doubt more neighbourhoods changing as corporations raze whole neighbourhoods to the ground and build more malls, office spaces and expensive apartment blocks. And maybe this is something that has accelerated since I made this work. Now if I go to Victoria or Kings Cross or Shoreditch, these communities are becoming less visible. Maybe a lot of the London I documented will not exist in 20 years time and a lot of what we will see will be dominated by these non-places.

 I would like to add this about the book as I see the book as the finished work.

The essence of the project is that you might take the same route everyday but what you see, the ebb and flow on the street takes on a random nature. To capture this flow, the concertina format reflects and mimics the feel of a bus journey, but more importantly it gives the viewer the opportunity to create their own journeys by spreading the book out and combining different images together. This moves the book away from an author-led linear narrative to one of multiple possibilities.

Before working on that series, you traveled across the world making images. Did you notice any significant differences in the non-places you passed through elsewhere? Or is there something universal about these transient areas?

I have been travelling for almost 40 years now and the experience has changed greatly. Airports used to be an interesting experience in themselves, now they all look and feel very similar. Shopping malls have spread across the world, and they are pretty much interchangable, have a similiar blueprint and layout. Without a doubt it helps the movement of people when something feels familiar. But I think the biggest non-place of all is not a place but the mobile phone. Somehow the mobile phone has given people the believe that by holding and looking and talking to this object creates a space around them that makes them comfortable and anonymous at the same time. It was while travelling on the buses that it struck me how people seem to create a shield around themselves, not just by texting or browsing the internet but by having very personal conversations as if they are in a private space and not in this very public space where everyone can hear you. That’s a whole new conversation on non places and how the technology is creating these new spaces.

As a follow up, did your travels elsewhere impact the way you viewed home upon returning to London?

Without a doubt. I always struggled to make work in the UK before.  I would say that my time away from home made me question what I was looking at, trying to see beyond the exotic to what was locally familiar, to really challenge myself to go beyond the clichés. Living and working in other countries gave me a strong focus, I came back with that energy. Luckily London is a city I love, that had undergone a lot of changes in the time I was away and I had a strong desire to explore it and open my eyes to it. 

Lastly – what do you think people reveal about themselves when they think that they aren’t being watched?

In a city it is easy to be anonymous, and there is that sense of shared invisibility.  This invisibility was crucial to the work, we feel as if no one is looking at us but we are all looking all the time. Most of the time it is so brief we wouldn’t be able to recollect what or who we have seen 5 minutes before.  I think it is this that allows people to feel comfortable, as they feel unobserved. My work attempts to show the moments we do witness and how little we know about what we are witnessing. It’s how a city functions successfully.

All photos are courtesy of George Georgiou. Visit George’s bookstore.

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