Danny Thompson and Suzie // © Simon Murphy
The Story behind the Portrait
What’s the worst that could happen? Just ask!
I caught a glimpse of Danny walking along Victoria Road in Govanhill in Glasgow. He was tall and thin and there was a tube of some sort taped to his nose. There are often moments of hesitation before approaching a subject. 100 questions run through the mind in a millisecond:
‘Will they say no? Will they understand why I want to photograph them? Do I really understand why I want to photograph them?’
But then an overwhelming force takes over that buries these questions and hesitations deep only to allow positive thoughts take over. Danny was recovering from pancreatic cancer and the tube going into his nose was to feed him, to ‘build him up’. We chatted and he agreed to be photographed.
It’s always interesting to find out how the subject views the interaction and recently I was given an insight into exactly how he viewed our meeting. I had taken Danny’s address and dropped him off a photographic newspaper that I publish called ‘Govanhill’ which featured the portrait of him and his dog Suzie. The paper is limited to 100 copies which I sign and distribute free in coffee shops and small businesses in the area. The idea is that to get a copy of the paper, you have to come into Govanhill. Perhaps while there, you might contribute a little to the local economy by buying a coffee or a record and perhaps preconceived ideas might be changed. The area is not without its problems but is also a very diverse and multi-cultural part of the City of Glasgow. My project ‘Govanhill’ is a portrait of the place which aims to highlight the diversity that helps make this part of the city so exciting. Despite leaving my number, I never heard from Danny after that initial portrait but recently I made a determined effort to track him down.
Due to the pandemic, as photographers, we are all having to think of alternative ways to get our work seen. An upcoming exhibition at Street Level Photoworks had to be postponed but we decided to put on a ‘Photo trail’ exhibition of 20 portraits in the windows of 20 different businesses in the area. For a subject, having your portrait up in a gallery is one thing but to have your image in the window of a shop where hundreds and even thousands of people will see it is another. As such, I felt it was important to ask each subjects permission once again to be displayed in this way.
The questions and doubts kicked in again:
‘Maybe I’ve not heard from Danny because he doesn’t like my portrayal of him? Maybe he never got the paper and I posted it through the wrong door? Has his health taken a decline recently?’
All these questions had to be put aside. That was just my mind inventing scenarios and not reality. I made a more determined effort to find him and eventually I did. After reminding him who I was the biggest smile flashed across his face:
‘I LOVED that photograph! Look, I still have it in the cellophane to keep it good.’
Danny’s dog, Suzie, had died and this was the only record he had of them together. Friends of his had seen the photograph and he had many fun conversations about the ‘kamikaze’ photographer who was darting all over the road and nearly getting knocked down just to get the ‘perfect composition’. That chance meeting on one of the hottest days of the year back in 2018 meant as much to Danny as it did to me. A shared experience that will stay with us both for life. That’s why it’s so important to clear the mind of doubts and just ask.
‘Govanhill Street Level’ runs as part of the Govanhill international Festival 2020 between Friday 21st of August to Sunday the 31st. The images will be displayed in windows throughout Govanhill. Follow Simon on Instagram for updates.
I caught a glimpse of Danny walking along Victoria Road in Govanhill in Glasgow. He was tall and thin and there was a tube of some sort taped to his nose. There are often moments of hesitation before approaching a subject. 100 questions run through the mind in a millisecond.
‘My images have always been about celebrating diversity and seeing beauty in our differences. Sometimes it’s important to ask yourself difficult questions and photography has the power to trigger thoughts in people’s minds that can plant the seeds for change’
Simon’s career has enabled him to travel extensively shooting human interest stories in countries such as Bangladesh, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Cambodia. His portraiture subjects range from individuals such as the Dalai Lama to musicians and actors including Noel Gallagher, Bobby Gillespie and John Hurt. Simon won the Scottish Portrait Award (Richard Coward award in photography) in 2019 and was a winner of the Portrait of Britain Award in 2019. He has been published extensively including in the Portrait of Humanity book and the British Journal of Photography.
Up till now, the ‘Govanhill’ images have only been available through a limited edition newspaper that Simon publishes and distributes free around the shops and cafés in the area. People have to come into Govanhill and find the publication from clues on Simon’s Instagram helping to contribute to the local economy and help challenge negative ideas about the area.
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