The Portfolio

I’m creating a portfolio. Day by day, bit by bit. Have been for many years now.

What I do is this.

I visit the train station and I sit and wait. I’m looking for expressions.

There’s one in particular I have yet to find. I want to capture that look in a person’s eyes when they imagine they are being watched. An uncomfortable moment that verges on fear and makes them look around reflexively. That’s the one I am looking for – that unease.

I have yet to find it.

Train stations are the perfect place to look for such a thing. People seem to spend a lot more time just hanging around waiting at trains stations than in other transitory places.

I’ve been to airports, metro stations and bus depots, but it’s at train stations that people seem to have more time. I’ve often wondered why this is. I think perhaps it’s the station itself.

I use the central station where the trans-continentals and the inter-city services pass through. Trains making journeys that take time, that require a little bit of planning.

Journeys that are made by people with time on their hands. People who prefer not to rush from place to place through the air, but to sit back slowly and watch it all pass by. People like that take their time, notice their surroundings more. Sit on benches and wait. Find things.

At the metro station it was all too fleeting. A train would pull in or out every fifteen minutes and in the swell of passengers on the platform it was impossible to pick out one particular face or one specific gaze. Same thing with bus stations. People there are rarely undertaking long journeys, they are simply in transit, crossing the city in a last minute rush, their thoughts elsewhere. So they fail to notice things around them, and they hardly ever sit down and wait.

But people at train stations do. So these are the people I photograph.

The main hallway is my studio. That’s where I set things up, where I leave my letters. That’s how I get the expressions, with these letters.

I place little notes on benches. Handwritten on blue paper. Personal looking. The kind of thing that it’s impossible to ignore or resist. The sight of the handwriting, the colour of the paper, hinting at some secret, at something private to be shared by two people who know one another intimately enough to write letters on pale blue paper. Something, in any case, which is intensely personal and is not meant to be shared in public places like this, among strangers on railway platforms.

It is impossible to ignore such a thing if you find it, impossible to refrain from reading it, from taking a peek into that private world. Because letters are exotic things. They are old fashioned and personal. A rarity. I have never seen anyone ignore one of my letters once they’ve noticed it. They always pick them up, always steal a quick glance to see if the careless owner is coming back to claim it. There’s a guilt about it all, about that uncontrollable curiosity, a furtive pleasure that always makes them smile at first as they start to read.

The first time I did this, I was looking for sadness. For perfect sadness. I wanted that look that occurs when someone is thinking about another person and is worried about them. That look that happens sometimes, when someone stops merely imagining what another person is going through, and starts to feel the same thing themselves.

Empathy. That’s the word for it. That was what I was looking for the first time.

You can wait a whole lifetime to catch a glimpse of something like that, which is why I thought of ways to manufacture it without the subject themselves being aware of the manipulation. I needed the look to be natural, so the letters were my solution.

It took me a while to think of the first letter though. To think of something, someone, that would be able to move a stranger to tears.

I had to try quite a few times before I got it right. There was the letter from the jilted girl to her lover, asking him to stay, but that barely raised even a quiver, the reader (a teenage boy as it turned out) seemed to find it amusing, to take pleasure in my woman’s fake grief.

I photographed him as he read, but there was nothing there worth keeping. His youthful smirk revealed nothing of interest. Sometimes this happens, sometimes the wrong person just sits down and you have to discard the day’s work.

So I tried a different theme the next day. This time a letter home from a long lost son. A sad, rambling thing explaining a long absence, a prolonged silence.

But the man who found it, an elderly man, unsteady on his feet, became more wistful if anything else, when he read it. As if he too had lost a son and was now provoked into thinking about him again, unexpectedly like that. It seemed to take him aback, as if it was something he couldn’t quite bear – to sit and wait for his train like that, with thoughts of his son in his head.

I could see him thinking, see him remember. In the photographs you can see it too, that long, deep, hollow pain of unexplained loss. That wondering and questioning. It was something he chose to think of very little, I could tell. Something he preferred to conceal from the people around him, and from himself. But in the photographs, it comes out. That question he is asking himself. That moment when he wonders if his own son is still alive.

It was sadness and it was very beautiful, but the perfection eluded me. So I tried again.
This time I was more obvious, more brutal and harsh. I wrote a suicide note from a teenage girl to her parents. The last goodbye. That was how I ended it, how I had her sign it off.

Goodbye, love Sarah.

I crumpled it a little, tore the corners of the envelope, little jerky, un-accepting rents in the paper, made by hands that refused to believe what they were reading.

A woman found it. Thirty or thereabouts I figured. When she saw it, she was reluctant at first to open it.

The envelope was addressed quite simply to mum and dad, and I could see that she seemed in two minds as to what to do with it.

For a while she just laid it on the bench beside her, touching it now and then and biting the inside of her cheek nervously.

And then, in spite of herself, she opened it and started to read. And immediately I could see she regretted it. Could see that now that she knew what it was she had in her hands, she felt ashamed. She didn’t read that much of it, never read to the end and the final goodbye.

Instead, she folded it back into the envelope, and I could see her throat tensing, the slight horror of it pulling at her as she stood up.

She was looking around, looking for the owner. Looking for the mother or the father who had lost what was perhaps the only thing left of their daughter. It was possible to notice this pass through her mind, the look on her face as she tried to figure out what to do. She didn’t cry, just stood there with this look of quiet desperation on her face.

And that was it. That was what I caught. That perfect sadness as she feels for an instant a loss that is almost as strong as those parents she is imagining. That total momentary lack of control, that submission to the emotion.

What she did then surprised me. As her train pulled into the station she let it go, let it pass through. Then she picked up her bags and walked down the platform, walked to the lost and found to deliver that letter. Hoping, no doubt, that it would somehow be returned.

Later I caught sight of her again. She was sitting alone in the station café, a cup of coffee in front of her. She was staring at the cup and spooning sugar into it, the way you do, when you have suffered a terrible shock.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *