Fact: if someone is sat on a bench they can’t run away. That may sound like creepy advice, but in September 2016 I found myself repeating it over and over in my head as I approached a random person sat on a bench. Camera in hand, striding ambitiously, the anxiety I have always dealt with grew immensely with every step.
My first day on the common opened my eyes to a new world. Southampton was no longer just somewhere where I lived to study, but also a network of unique stories waiting to be discovered.
“What if they tell me to go away? What if they attack me?” I was understandably worried. Let’s face it, urban life is solitary even though it is full of other people. I like to think Ezra Pound had it right:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
We grow to ignore the humans surrounding us and instead treat them as obstacles around which we must navigate and hopefully not interact with. We let Humans of New York do the talking for us whilst we mindlessly like the photos and stories of strangers. Well, I decided not to do that anymore, I was determined to no longer be a mindless thumb-tapper.
“Hello, mind if I take a few pictures and ask some questions?”
Bewilderment, concern, and most of all humour grew on their faces.
“Oh, yes, of course you can!”
Big, internal sigh, and off I went into the very thing we’re socially barred from doing.
This was the beginning of something wonderful. It was to be my first little insight into a randomers life, on my Instagram @sotoncommoners. My purpose: to document the diversity of experiences amongst the humans of Southampton. Now, you may wonder why the Common. Why not the city? Well, the city centre has a very different character to the Common. In fact, green spaces in general have a very different feeling to the usual grey of the city. It’s part of a continuously emerging picture of the role of parks and nature within city infrastructure. I will explore this more in parts 2 & 3 of this series. For now, I’d like to wander with you through my experience of initially talking to people, and hopefully you become invested enough, or lost enough, in this world that you too might get up and explore.
The first day was pleasantly sunny, so there were loads of people chilling out and enjoying the Common. I walked up to someone sitting on the grass, their bike next to them. They were extremely friendly, something which alleviates any and all anxiety I had about making the first move. How would you react if a man with a camera marched towards you across an open field?
"I'm quite well. I'm 92, from Lincoln. I've come here via Wales after a month with my daughter. I'm now with my son who unfortunately works in London but lives here. I'm here for a month before going back to Lincoln to sell up and move to Spain with my daughter… My daughter-in-law is establishing a little business of here own down here, and looks after her friend's dogs in the week. She exercises them but I have to exercise myself! I don't stay in shape automatically the way I used to. " #humans #southampton #park #life #reality
One of the most intriguing and revealing encounters I had. Even now I think about him when I visit the Common and sit on that particular bench. He opened up to me in ways I didn’t think a stranger would, like telling me his wife had died earlier in the year. It’s nice to feel like there’s at least someone out there looking to be open, even if the experience was fleeting. There’s a term for the realisation that everyone around you is a separate consciousness with their own path through life: sonder. This old man gave me that feeling, and I’m very grateful that I’ve held on to it.
"I'm sort of middling, better for having a walk. I'm retired, with a dog; life is mostly about walking the dog. I have a campervan and we spend a lot of time gazing at the sea (and walking the dog). The bugger about it is the campervan broke down halfway to Cornwall a couple of weeks ago… I'm borrowing my friend's now, but I've gotten good at using the bus! Like ordinary people!" #humans #southampton #park #life #reality #dog
Dogs are everywhere. They’re our best friends, they listen when nobody else will and provide us with unconditional love for almost nothing in return. Walking through the park, I’d often look for people walking their dogs and try to interview them. It makes for a great icebreaker if the dog runs up to me. In the early days, all I really cared about was extracting these little stories. Recently, however, I’ve also become interested in garnering the dynamic between people and parks. A good portion of those who I interviewed whilst dog-walking said they were only out and about thanks to their dog.