Black and white portraiture, day by day, face by face
Celebrating diversity, exploring identity, encouraging engagement, honouring the beauty in everyone.
This is currently the home page for my Face by Face project, begun back in April of 2013. Born of a desire to take photographs of the fascinating people I was meeting back then, it has grown to become a record of my life through the faces I chance across every single day.
You may well have arrived at this page as a result of becoming a subject, in which case thank you for agreeing to be photographed and taking part. It’s always an honour and a privilege to be granted permission to take a portrait photograph. I recognise that it’s a very personal request to make of someone.
Each picture is posted to a site called Blipfoto, which is designed as a daily photo journal. You can explore the gallery view, or click through to view the individual images. The diversity is extraordinary. I still feel a frisson of astonishment at the sight of them all lined up in rows, every single face so very different, every single face so very human—in its every aspect.
Please click here.
The story of this project predates its formal start by a good few months. I’d been posting a daily photograph to my Blipfoto journal for the best part of two years. I’d rediscovered a love for photography and was enjoying the process of curating my pictures, trying to choose the one that best represented each day or the one that I most wanted to share. As a result of always having my camera with me, it was rare not to come across something pleasing or striking to post. In the winter, when I travelled between home and office in the dark, lunchtime was the only opportunity. My territory was the Yorkshire town of Shipley. There was a canal, old mill buildings, industrial archaeology. There was also a rather rundown town centre, built in the sixties when concrete was all the vogue. The brutal urban landscape lent itself rather well to black and white street photography.
It was while looking for such photographs at lunchtimes that I found myself wanting to get in closer and take proper portraits of the people I was seeing. I’d come across a few portrait photographers on Blipfoto whose work I admired and coveted their skills. But it was a daunting prospect. The idea of walking up to someone and asking if I could take their photograph was terrifying. Despite a growing confidence at taking candid pictures at close range— because even if I was spotted, people never seemed to care—actually approaching someone was far out of my comfort zone. At that point, I was barely even flirting with the idea of actually doing anything about it.
And then it happened. I took this photograph on March 7th, 2013.
I wrote this on my daily journal:
“Walking away, thinking that it would be really cool to photograph him, I was stopped in my tracks by the need to just go do it. I’m introverted, not shy! So I crossed back over the road and asked if I could take his picture. It was so easy and he was so cool. His name was John. I love this photograph. I’m definitely starting out on some kind of journey here.”
I wasn’t wrong there—although I had no idea then how life-changing that journey was going to be. Something was gestating inside me. Over the course of the next month, I found a way to ask a few more people but failed to pluck up the courage to ask as many as I would have liked. I was getting good at coming up with excuses not to approach people. The terror hadn’t gone away. Nonetheless, I was increasingly able to overcome my inhibitions when I felt sufficiently driven to do so. I got a buzz from my encounters: a sense of achievement tinged with a feeling of well-being and perhaps run through with a small shot of adrenaline. This was something I knew I wanted to pursue, despite it being at odds with my personality—because it was at odds with my personality.
I wished to share the portraits I was taking and, aware that my main Blipfoto journal was likely to become overrun with them, I started another. I had the idea of collecting a thousand, a target that seemed overwhelmingly ambitious at the time. The decision was made to process each face in black and white. It’s hard to explain the reasons now, but it felt like colour was a distraction and its removal allowed the humanity of each person to be seen more clearly. It’s not something that can easily be put into words. Some of the people I photograph look so fabulous in colour that it pains me now to take it away from them, but once I started posting in monochrome there was no going back. There’s a thematic integrity to the portfolio that can’t be violated.
I called the journal A Thousand Faces. I honestly thought it would take very many years to collect that many. Although I had no intention of posting every single day, it soon became a daily practice and I reached the target in less than three years. It was a little frightening how quickly the milestone arrived. There was no reason to stop so the journal was renamed Face By Face. I’ve not missed a day since I began, despite periods of illness and serious injury. I get to meet a wonderful new person every single day!
I’ve now been taking a daily portrait for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t. Although a good number are of friends and acquaintances, with occasional family members popping up too, the vast majority are complete strangers and I never have any idea in advance of who is going to appear as my face each day. I like that sense of surprise. I wake up knowing that I will be involved in a serendipitous encounter with somebody out there in the world, perhaps a person I already know but more likely someone I’ve never met before.
I have to admit that there are times when it can feel like a chore. There are times when I’d prefer to stay in the house and avoid having to talk to anybody. It’s on those days when this project is the only thing that gets me out of my bubble and engaging with the world. It’s invariably a positive experience and often hugely beneficial to my well-being. I always return home feeling better about myself. And I’d like to think that’s reciprocated.
I’ve learned that people almost universally welcome acknowledgement, even if they decline to have their photograph taken. It’s now far more about that engagement than the photography. This project gives me a reason to stop and talk to people, something I’ve never been predisposed to do. I’ve always been perfectly happy to beaver away inside that bubble of mine. I’ve found that it’s the conversation with a fellow human being that’s the really important thing here.
I’ve not had a single bad experience as a result of approaching thousands of people. The worst that has happened is when one old man, a little drunk, told me to piss off. It’s hard to go back in time to be sure, but I believe I’ve changed as a result of this daily challenge. I’ve become more outgoing.
I’ve been asked if I would cheat if I happened to miss getting a shot one day. There is no need to think about my response. I’d have to leave a gap in my journal. It would defeat the purpose otherwise. The truth is that it’s become autobiographical, a record of where I’ve been each day, of the people I’ve met, of the weather I’ve experienced. The shot I post is as much a reflection of where I’m at in my head as where I’m at on the ground. I guess that the kind of people I attract on any particular day is a function of my mood. The project is more about me than I would ever have thought possible at the start.
I used to think that there was very little skill involved in taking these portraits, no great talent at work other than perseverance and a willingness to talk to people. I’ve changed my mind about that. I’m pretty sure that I’ve evolved all kinds of subliminal techniques that would likely be more apparent to someone watching me do my thing. The method of approach, thinking about the light and the background, steering the subject to the right place, getting them relaxed: they’ve all become instinctive now. It’s just something that happens.
It’s hard to imagine now that I’ll ever stop while I’m still physically able to do so. I would miss so much if I did. I did think about renaming the journal as Ten Thousand Faces, but that might be tempting Fate a little too much.