Deborah St James came at Sanctuary Buildings by way of Parliament Square on one of the hottest days of what had so far been a blazingly hot summer. She’d been asked to meet with one of the undersecretaries at the Department for Education as well as the head of the NHS. ‘We’d like to talk you about a project,’ she’d been told. ‘Are you available to take something on?’
She was. She’d been casting round for a project since the publication of London Voices four months earlier, an undertaking that she’d spent the last several years putting together. So she was happy to attend a meeting that might turn into a new project although she couldn’t imagine what sort of photography the Department for Education in conjunction with the NHS might have in mind.
She approached a guard at the door with her identification in hand. However, he wasn’t so much interested in that as was he interested in the contents of her capacious bag. He told her that her mobile phone was fine but she was going to have to prove that her digital camera actually was a camera. Deborah obliged by taking his picture. She showed it to him. He waved her towards the door. He said, just as she was about to enter, ‘Delete that, though. I look like crap.’
At the reception desk, she asked for Dominique Shaw. Deborah St James here to speak with the undersecretary for the school system, she added.
After a discreetly murmured phone call, she was handed a lanyard with VISITOR printed on the card that hung from it. Meeting Room 4, she was told. Floor 2. Turn to the right if she chose the lift. Turn to the left if she chose the stairs. She went for the stairs.
When she arrived at Meeting Room 4, though, she assumed she’d been given the wrong number. Five people sat round a polished conference table, not the two she’d been led to believe wished to meet her. Three floor fans were trying heroically to mitigate the temperature in the room. They were only creating something of a scirocco.
A woman rose from the end of the table and came towards her, hand extended. She was smartly dressed in a manner that shouted ‘government official’, and she was decorated with overlarge rimless spectacles and gold earrings the size of golf balls. She was Dominique Shaw, she said, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the School System. She introduced the others so quickly that for the most part, Deborah only caught their positions: the head of the NHS, a representative from Barnardo’s, the founder of something called Orchid House, and a woman with the name Narissa whose surname Deborah didn’t catch. They were a diverse group: one was Black, one looked Korean, Dominique Shaw was white, and the woman called Narissa appeared to be mixed race.
‘Please.’ Dominique Shaw indicated an empty chair next to the representative from Barnardos.
Deborah sat. She was surprised to see a copy of London Voices in front of each of the people who were there. Her first thought was that the book was causing difficulties somehow, that she had created a volume that had turned out to be politically, socially or culturally incorrect, although she couldn’t imagine how any of that would involve the Department for Education. For the book comprised portraits of Londoners taken over a period of three years. Each portrait was accompanied by some of the subject’s words recorded by Deborah during the photographic session. Included among the portraits were at least two dozen of the increasingly large homeless population, people of all ages and races and nationalities who ended up sleeping in doorways along the Strand, stretched out in the subways beneath Park Lane, curled next to wheelie bins – and sometimes inside them – and behind hotels like the Savoy and the Dorchester. These parts of the book didn’t deliver London as the glamorous global city it made itself out to be.
She demurred on the offer of coffee or tea, but happily accepted tepid water from a glass jug on the table. She waited for someone to bring up the subject of the meeting – preferably clarification on the topic of what on earth she was doing there – and once Deborah had her water, as well as her own completely unnecessary copy of London Voices that Dominique Shaw passed to her, the undersecretary for schools began to elucidate.
She said, ‘It was Mr Oh who brought your book to my attention,’ with a nod at the man from Barnardo’s. ‘It’s impressive. I’ve been wondering, though . . .’ She seemed to cull through various options of what she was wondering while outside and below the window what sounded like a lorry with a very bad transmission screeched in the street. Shaw glanced at the window, frowned, then went on. ‘How did you manage it?’
Deborah wasn’t sure what Dominique Shaw meant. She looked at the cover of the book for a moment. The publisher had chosen an inoffensive image: one of the many elderly people who regularly fed the birds in St James’s Park. Peaked cap on his head, he was standing on the bridge over the pond, hand extended, bird on his palm. It was his deeply lined cheeks that had interested her, how the lines mapped the distance from the eyes to his lips, which were very chapped. The photograph wasn’t one she would have chosen for the cover of the book, but she understood the reasoning behind it. One did want the prospective buyer to pick it up and open it. A photo of someone sleeping rough in the Strand wasn’t likely to be as effective.
Deborah said, ‘D’you mean getting people to pose? I did ask them. I told them I wanted to make a portrait and, to be honest, most people are willing to have their picture taken if they’re approached and given the reason. Not everyone, of course. There were some people who said no, absolutely not. A few unpleasant remarks here and there but one can’t be put off by that. Those who were happy to let me shoot them where they were . . . ? If they had an address, I sent them a copy of the photo I chose to use in the book.’
‘And what they said to you.’ Mr Oh was speaking. ‘Their remarks that you’ve included . . . ?’
‘How did you get them to talk to you like this?’ the woman Narissa asked.
‘Oh. Right.’ Deborah opened the book and leafed through a few of the pages as she spoke. ‘The thing about taking someone’s photograph is to get them not to think about the fact that I’m taking their photograph. People stiffen up in front of a camera. It’s human nature. They think they’re supposed to pose and suddenly, they’re not who they really are. So the photographer has to devise a way to catch them in a moment when they . . . I suppose you’d say in a moment when they reveal themselves. Every photographer has to do this. It’s easy enough if I can catch them unaware of being photographed in the first place. But for something like this – I mean for a book or for any formal portrait, really – one can’t do that. So most photographers talk to them as they shoot.’
‘Tell them to relax, tell them to smile, tell them what?’ Dominique Shaw asked.
Deborah saw how the undersecretary had misunderstood her explanation. She said, ‘I don’t tell them anything. I ask them to tell me. I listen to them and I respond and they carry on. For this’ – she indicated the book – ‘I asked them to tell me about their experiences in London, about how they felt about living in London, about what London feels like for them, about the place where the picture was taken. Naturally, everyone had a different answer. It was the exploration of the answer that ended up giving me the moments I was looking for.’
The founder of Orchid House said, ‘Wha’s this, then? D’you think you have a special gift for getting people to talk to you?’
Deborah smiled as she shook her head. ‘Lord, no. I’m completely inarticulate if the subject veers away from photography, dogs, or cats. I can do gardening, I suppose, but only if it deals with weeding and only if I don’t have to identify the weed. For this’ – again she indicated the book – ‘I settled on the same questions in advance and I asked them as I took the pictures. Then we went from there. I built on what they gave me as answers. Whenever people hit on the subject that triggers them, their faces alter.’
‘And that’s when you take the picture?’
‘No, no. That’s what I’m looking for, but I take the pictures all along. For a book like this . . . I culled through . . . I don’t know . . . p’rhaps three thousand portraits?’
There was a silence round the table. Glances were exchanged. Deborah’s conclusion was that she certainly hadn’t been called here for reasons to do with London Voices, but she still couldn’t work out what they wanted with her. Finally, the undersecretary spoke.
‘Well, you’ve done quite a job with the book,’ she said. ‘Congratulations. We have a project we’d like to talk to you about.’