I’m not even sure where to begin… Having just returned from the U.K., I am exhausted and beaten up, both physically and emotionally. My agent and friend David Gibbons has been working on this project called the “Face of Freedom” for five years. Last year he finally embarked on the first of a multi year odyssey with the production of “14 Days in America”. I won’t go into detail with regards to what it’s all about, but rather will let you explore it at www.14daysinamerica.com.
Well this year he headed off to Great Britain to continue the adventure, and invited me to come along for the experience. I had offered up my services in whatever capacity they could be used. I didn’t care whether I was taking photos or pushing a broom, I believed in what David was doing and after seeing a short clip from last years project just wanted to contribute and be a part of it.
My role changed several times before we even left Los Angeles and by the time we landed I didn’t know what to expect. I knew we were traveling fast and light so I brought the bare minimum of equipment, just enough to be prepared for whatever it was that I might end up doing.
“14 Days in Great Britain” was to be a whirlwind. Fourteen towns and cities in England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland, in as many days. We started in Stornoway, which is in the Western Isles of Scotland, with a crew of 23. There were three film crews, one to film interviews, one to film David on the streets talking to the locals and inviting selected individuals to become a part of the project and its developing community, and one to film atmospheric footage of local landmarks and the surrounding area or “B-Roll” as we call it. There were three photographers. Richard Knapp would shoot studio portraits of each participant on a seamless background, as he did last year in America. Jon Meiners would be shooting the still equivalent of B-Roll, and I was to wander the streets and shoot portraits of a more environmental and documentary nature.
Our first day was a travel day, arriving in Glasgow and getting up to Stornoway. Something in the neighborhood of 26 hours of traveling. Our second day was filled with equipment checks, introductions (our crew was made up from professionals and students from various cities in both the U.S. and U.K.) and pre-production meetings. And then it was Monday….Day 1.
For the next fourteen days the schedule was much the same although the experience each day was very different. Get up around 6 a.m. eat breakfast, pack up the vans, go to the venue, which was often a town hall or museum, unpack all of the equipment and set up for the day. Shoot all day with maybe a 30 or 45 min break for lunch. Wrap around 6 or 7 p.m. Pack up the equipment, eat dinner, get on the road to the next town, arrive usually somewhere around midnight, unpack, fall into bed and start it all over again in a few hours.
The actual process of shooting the photographs was new for me and way outside my comfort zone. I hated it and loved it all at the same time. For 13 of the 14 days I had the same assistant, Greg Davies, a student from Plymouth who was great. We got our subjects simply by wandering the streets and asking people if they wouldn’t mind us taking their portrait for the project. Each morning we would set out, looking for our first “victim”, wondering if they would be a warm and welcoming local or if we might get our first “NO!” and out of the way immediately. I don’t know why, but approaching that first person each day felt so daunting. I am used to putting together photo shoots where I am in control and everyone on the project especially those being photographed are there because the want to be. This was very different. I was in control of nothing, and quite often felt like one of those people on the street trying to sell you something, that you so desperately want to avoid. Most of the people we approached were quite perplexed as to why we would want to photograph them and so finding a way to explain the project and keep them engaged was key. I quickly learned that I had to stop saying that I wanted to “shoot” them, but rather that I wanted to take a portrait of them! Greg and I were surprised both by how many people had no problem with being photographed, and also why others would have such an issue with it.
On the morning of Day 7 five of the crew opted to leave the production. It was a difficult and emotional morning, but for the 18 that remained we became a much more efficient crew. Emotions caught up with me around day 8. I think the weight and significance of what we were doing; along with a bit of sleep deprivation mixed in with having met and photographed literally hundreds of people in only a few days finally hit me. I had been moving through this project in a very “matter of fact” way. And on day 8 I was sitting at my computer downloading a batch of images I had just shot and reviewing material from earlier in the week and it just hit me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to distill into words what exactly I felt, but looking at all of these faces, these people who had been so generous with us, all of these unique individuals who’s paths I was lucky enough to cross even if for just a few minutes, these people I would probably never see again…. Without being overly dramatic, it was a very profound moment, to come to the realization of what we were doing, what I was experiencing. Certainly nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I think it will take me some time and a bit of distance from the project to really get a clear picture of the whole thing. Regardless our trip ended in London on day 14 and the crew had its teary goodbyes with promises of staying in touch. It was a very hard trip. I learned a lot. Strangely this project about other people and places ended up being for me largely a journey of self-exploration.
If you would like to see some of the images we captured or learn more about the project, check out the web site at www.fourteendaysingreatbritain.com.