This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way. This month’s interview is with Gavin Mills, an international DJ and behind-the-scenes music industry photographer. Gavin’s strength lies in developing a deep rapport with the homeless people he photographs. As he says, “Their home is the street. How would you feel if I walked into your home and started taking pictures without asking?”
Q: To start, can you give me an overview of your project, its title and its main theme?
A: “Invisible People” is a project about the homeless people who live and sleep on our city streets. These are people we might pass everyday with indifference. It is titled “Invisible People” perhaps because we choose not to see them or maybe because that’s how they feel.
I hope that the photos show each of the people as not just another anonymous rough sleeper or a statistic but individuals with their own personal stories and set of circumstances.
Q: And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?
A: The project began quite unconsciously when I met a homeless man sitting outside Camden station. I enjoyed talking to him and making his photo. Later when I downloaded the photo I found it to be very emotive and thought provoking. He was such a warm and friendly guy and I wondered about the events that had led him to be homeless in the first place. Following that first encounter I began to spend time talking to more homeless people and taking their photos which continues to be both rewarding and enjoyable, perhaps even more than just a project.
When I take their photos I always ask permission. I could be discrete and take the photos without them being aware of it but, for the homeless, the street is their home so it feels intrusive. Imagine me coming into your home and taking photos without asking. Besides, what I’m looking for in the photos is a real connection and that’s not going to be possible unless I can win them over and actually make that connection for real.
With each of my photos I began to include some text about the person. It might have been something we had talked about during the exchange or if they didn’t like chatting then perhaps something from my own observations. The more pictures and stories I add to the project the more I think it’s become a picture of who these invisible people really are, and conceivably that picture could be any one of us, as I’ve discovered being homeless could happen to literally anyone. I’ve really met people from all walks of life who often through circumstances beyond their control have been left with little other alternative.
Q: Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause-related end in mind?
A: I don’t see the project as being commercial in a financial sense but it would be great if my photos could be used in some way to help or bring awareness. Recently, with help from Apptitude Media, the publishers of the British Journal of Photography, and from photographer Eddie Ephraums, I’ve taken the first steps towards having my project published as a digital book/app “Invisible People” which is now freely available to download through Showcase on the App Store.
Another positive thing that’s come out of the project has been my working with the London-based charity The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields. They saw my work and asked if I would make pictures for their clients and we’ve even organized a photography workshop inviting their clients to take portraits of each other.
Q: What photographic choices have you made: colour palette, composition, use of flash, etc.?
A: Making street portraits is spontaneous and that can present many challenges. As well as trying to win someone over, you have to think about the best way to photograph them in their immediate surroundings. It requires being able to think on your feet about the light, framing and composition quickly and without disrupting the flow. I’ve never used any flash. I prefer to work with natural light.
I try to look for a genuine emotion from the person I’m photographing. I don’t mind what the emotion is but only that it’s honest and real. Being patient enough to wait and recognize those moments when their character emerges and being ready to catch it can be the essence of a good photo.
I always think about my images in black-and-white and always have my preview on the camera set BW. Colour can sometimes be distracting or get in the way. I find that by simplifying a photo and taking away the colour, the emotion often feels stronger. Also I find it helps to add a continuity to the overall look of the project that might be more difficult to achieve in colour.
Q: What’s your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
A: Through this project, if I can make people just think for a minute about homelessness then it’s had some degree of success. I’ll continue.
Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
A: I upload and enjoy being part of quite a few online groups. There is also a contact on my Flickr called MJP who I’ve followed for many years. MJP, or Mike, lives in Winnipeg, Canada. I’ve always enjoyed his wonderful street portraits of the local people of Winnipeg along with his short stories or narrations of the encounters and it became clear to me from his street photography that just adding a few words about a person in the picture can add much more of a sense of the person than the photo alone. I think it was his work that inspired me.
Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?
A: I guess one of the only setbacks I’ve encountered along the way might be the people who I would have loved to have photographed but they declined or felt uncomfortable with it. I’ve learned that the more rapport you can build with the person you’re shooting the better the shot you’re going to get. Sometimes people that said no to begin with are happy to have a photo once they feel comfortable with you.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
A: I shoot my pictures with a Leica M9. For me it’s the ultimate camera for street photography. It’s compact, light, a joy to focus and, most importantly, it produces beautiful images.
I generally only carry one or two lenses. The Summilux 35 mm ASPH. is my go to lens. I like to get in close when I shoot portraits. I find it helps to keep the encounter close and personal, which might make a difference to how the pictures feel. Shooting close up and wide open, the Summilux isolates the subject beautifully while still capturing some of their surroundings that might help to tell the story. I’ll also carry a 90 mm Summicron. It’s a great portrait lens for when I want to get in real close and capture every detail of someone’s face.
Something else I’ve found since using a Leica system is that people feel more at ease about having their picture taken. Perhaps the Leica feels less intimidating or invasive and people often comment on it being a beautiful looking camera. I really couldn’t imagine wanting to use any other camera for this project.
Thank you for your time, Gavin!
-Leica Internet Team
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 6,100 members. In June 2015, Olaf will be co-teaching “Visual Conversations”, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport. If you have an intriguing project or body of work, completed or in progress, that we might feature contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit olafwilloughby.com.
You can see more of Gavin’s work on his website, www.gavinmillsphotography.com.