Stuart Pilkington is a photographer and curator from the UK who splits his time between making portraits in small towns in Northwest England and facilitating collaborative photography projects that span the globe. Keep reading to learn more about these collaborations and how he approaches strangers on the streets.
How did you get started?
I started photographing in the early 90’s at the age of 21. It had nothing to do with an aesthetic, but with documentation. I wrote every day what I had been doing and used an Instamatic to document it. At 27, I bought a 35mm Minolta SLR and a computer with internet access and became more interested in the aesthetics of photography, but was mostly informed by amateur photography magazines. I photographed flowers, etc. I bought a lot of equipment during this time.
As the photography content on the internet improved, I became acquainted with the work of William Eggleston, Alec Soth, Stephen Shore and artists of that kind. Their work really motivated me. What I appreciated about Eggleston is that he could go to his town and capture the mundane in a beautiful way, like the light on someone’s hair. That resonated with me.
I began picking up some commercial work, but I was mostly interested in my art photography. I started curating projects in order to motivate myself to photograph. It wasn’t until this year that I’ve photographed regularly with the purpose to complete a project.
How would you describe your photographs?
For my project, Strangers in Paradise, I’m photographing people with a 6×6 Hassleblad and, though I know people have said it’s been done to death, I favor a dead-pan aesthetic. As I’ve gained more confidence, I’ve begun to focus on colors and patterns. I’m looking for someone who looks interesting or a color that might fit in.
In part, it’s a documentary. I’m going to towns and cities in the northwest of England and documenting the people there. However, I only shoot twelve photos in each place, so coverage is limited. As a result, I make an intentional effort to capture a flavor of the mix of ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds of these places.
Photography has become more interesting to me now that I’ve set a goal and am making the journey to get there.
Why only twelve frames?
That’s all I can budget for! In some ways, digital is great because you can shoot and shoot and shoot. However, if you’re limited to fewer frames, like twelve, you become more focused. You’re not shooting glibly.
I’ve put enough money away so that I can continue this project for a year. It’s been life changing for me. Strangers in Paradise is the first project that I’ve done completely on my own. Photography has become more interesting to me now that I’ve set a goal and am making the journey to get there.
Like a child gawking at familiar faces, I was infatuated by portrait photography. I wanted to photograph people.
How do you find subjects for Strangers in Paradise?
It has evolved over time. Like a child gawking at familiar faces, I was infatuated by portrait photography. I wanted to photograph people. Photography has been my excuse to look at people. But nobody I know really likes having their photographs taken. The only course of action I had available was to hit the streets and follow the tradition of photographing strangers.
My plan was to walk along until I met someone and asked them if I could photograph them. On my first outing, I went to Northwich and approached the first person I came across and he agreed to let me photograph him. He was the catalyst—if he had said no, I may not have continued.
In the beginning, I was photographing mostly men. I didn’t want to stop women on their own, in case I scared them. I didn’t want to photograph children, families, or even elderly people. I strictly photographed men, like myself. It wasn’t particularly interesting. Now, I’ve become more confident. I’ll interact with anyone I want to and, in fact, take the most interest in people who are not like myself.
How do you approach your subjects?
I always start with the same phrase, “my apologies, I know it’s horrible being approached by a stranger…”. Most people expect that you’re trying to sell them something, but if you address what they’re probably thinking, the tension melts away. From there, I explain that I am a fine art photographer who takes peoples’ portraits in the towns in Northwest England. About 70% of people are happy to do it. It’s a lovely thing talking to strangers.
I’ve discovered some interesting things about people. Britain is known as a reserved nation, but I’ve found people very open and willing to help out. Ultimately, we’re social animals. One of the tenants of happiness is known to be smiling at a stranger. People like being smiled at, and, if you do so, they will respond in kind.
You have to be careful not to generalize, but I’ve found that some groups of people, like those from China or Japan, will always turn down my offer to be photographed. Lads are willing to pose in large groups, by themselves or with one other, but I’ve found they won’t pose in a group of three! They’ll grimace at you. It’s odd, but I’ve had it happen several times.
In the U.K., we have a real paranoia about photographing children. I don’t ask to photograph children on their own, though I’d love to. Recently, I approached a family of five. The parents only wanted the children to be photographed. They made great photographs. But I haven’t had much experience with it other than that.
It’s meant to be playful, but also foster a sense of belonging. I really like the tribe I belong to.
How did you become a facilitator of others’ work?
As a means to motivate and promote my photography, I decided to harness my ability to make websites and connect photographers together to work collaboratively. My first was The Alphabet Project, which consisted of 26 photographers, one for each letter of the alphabet based on their name, who were assigned projects every two weeks. I’m amazed that we finished that project. It was so exhausting!
‘Kitchen’ by Emli Taskk
My third project was The 50 States Project. I found a photographer from each of the 50 United States and gave them six assignments over the course a year. They had to show off their skills and show off America. I was lucky to work with 50 photographers who were brilliant, the descendents of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Their images made the project a success and there was a real buzz about it. It got featured on NPR and in Esquire. From there, I’ve become hooked on both the creative process and the sense of community. It’s meant to be playful, but also foster a sense of belonging. I really like the tribe I belong to.
How do you get connected with photographers?
At first, I was connecting with people on Facebook and Craigslist. I messaged loads of people for The Alphabet Project, but didn’t hear back from most. Out of the blue, Paula Bollers got in touch and was excited about participating in the project. She was the catalyst that got the project rolling. When I brought about The 50 States Project, I emailed a number of well known American photographers. Brian Ulrich got back to me and said he was up for it. If it wasn’t for these catalysts, these projects wouldn’t have happened. Now, I have a spreadsheet with thousands of photographers and do a mix of inviting people who have already worked with me and look for new photographers.
How have the photographers handled the assignments?
The first project consisted of 26 assignments over a year and it was too much. Since then, I’ve learned to prune it to keep it simple and have the least amount of commitment as possible. My most recent project, The Swap, consists of photographers photographing each other. There’s no deadline and there is only one image requirement. I’ve found that photographers prefer that. When you only have to do one image, you can concentrate everything into it. However, The Swap is open to more than one entry per photographer. Some have submitted two or three and I’ve even had someone submit six!
Have you been photographed for The Swap?
After my second project, I made it a policy not to include myself. Traditionally, photographers who have curated others’ work have kept it separate from their personal assignments. I’ve been asked to be photographed for The Swap, but I stick to my policy. Besides, I hate having my photograph taken, so I probably wouldn’t enjoy it.
Have you had any mentors?
Not particularly. When I was about 11, by dad’s second wife’s father, who was a freelance photographer, had his own darkroom and stirred my interest in photography. Now, since I know so many photographers, I need simply to ask questions on Facebook or Twitter and I’m given loads of advice. In a way, I’ve created my own photography university.
You say a lot about yourself by what you photograph.
How do your photographs reflect to you are?
There was an Australian bubblegum pop singer named Jason Donovan in the 80’s. When asked what he listened to, he said he didn’t really like the music he made, but indie and punk rock. It’s the same with my photography. I love going out each week and the process, but I’m not so keen on the results.
In an interview, Larry Sultan described an occasion of showing his father a portrait he had made of him. His father told him the photograph wasn’t of himself, but of Larry. You say a lot about yourself by what you photograph. Over the last year, my contentment level has increased and I believe it is due to this project and is reflected in the work. In the beginning, they were without color and not particularly interesting, quite symmetrical and rigid. Now, they are more fluid and I’m not so bothered when they are off-center. There’s a correlation to how I’ve been feeling and how the images are coming out.
What makes a good photograph?
There are three ways to make photographs. You can make photographs that are rich in content, though you’re not a great camera-operator. You have the right subject to make the project brilliant. Alternatively, your photographs can stand purely on style. What you’re photographing isn’t particularly interesting, but the way you’re presented it is outstanding. The best way to make photographs is to have both engaging content and innovative style. That’s where the real masters, known and unknown, are at their best.
The act of photographing fundamentally declares that what exists in the world is wonderful, beautiful, lovely, even when it’s ugly.
What is the defining characteristic of a good photographer?
Patience. When you’re photographing people, you must find a way to relax people. You have to love what you are looking at. You must be able to see things that you couldn’t before you had a camera. Good photographers are hyper-aware of their surroundings. The more you photograph, the more you develop this ability. You must find joy in your life. The act of photographing fundamentally declares that what exists in the world is wonderful, beautiful, lovely, even when it’s ugly.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Recently, I got in touch with a life coach. It’s been one of the most life-changing things I’ve ever done. Each week, we have a chat and he helps me to determine my goals and what steps I need to take to achieve them. Next year, I’m becoming self employed and setting up a photography agency. I want to practice my own photography weekly. I’m hoping to be produce a book from The Swap. The projects I curate will be more exciting and will include physical exhibitions, books, etc. I want to build up the name of Stuart Pilkington so that when you come along on a Pilkington project, you know it’s going to be exciting and worthwhile.
You’ve discovered one of the mysteries of life—creativity.
What advice would you give to budding artists?
You’ve discovered one of the mysteries of life—creativity. There’s something wonderful about creating things. The fact that you’re focused on it says a lot about who you are. You’re not somebody that is concerned with the same things that others are concerned with—money, image, and status. You’re concentrating on creating something, expressing something, making something beautiful or making something ugly. If you can create rather than consume and you spend your money on buying oil paints or camera film rather than loads of CDs and DVDs, then you’re onto something. Find a passion for something and go do it. Develop a routine to do it regularly. If you do that, you can’t help but improve. Enjoy what you do. You’ve found one of the tenants of happiness—creating things. If you spend your time doing that, whether you make money or not, then you’re going to be successful.
‘Family By Lighthouse, New Brighton’ by Stuart Pilkington
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