8×10 Portraits – Touching Strangers

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Book extract: Touching Strangers by Richard Renaldi
Aperture 2014
8×10 portraits

During Sunday services at the parish church my family occasionally attended in the 1970s, we were asked to do something that I remember being out of the ordinary. The priest would ask us to turn to the strangers seated beside us and offer a sign of peace in the form of a handshake. I looked forward to that part of the service. I remember feeling connected to something larger than my immediate family, which would soon be broken apart by my parents’ divorce.

Handshaking is at least as old as the ancient world and is thought to have originated as a gesture of non-violence, demonstrating that the hand held no weapon. An 1864 engraving apocryphally depicts the Native Americans shaking hands with Puritan colonists arriving at Plymouth. Throughout the 19th century, Quakers popularised handshaking as a sign of equality under God. I did not know it then, but I was participating in one of the few primeval customs in which it was permissible to put my hands on the body of an unfamiliar person. Those Sundays at church are my earliest memories of touching strangers.

I spent my teenage years in Chicago, living alone with my mother in a high-rise apartment building along a stretch of Lake Shore Drive known as the ‘‘Gold Coast’’. There was a clear distinction between our wealthy neighbourhood and Cabrini-Green, the notorious housing projects less than a mile away. Though I was too young to fully understand America’s history of racial division, something seemed unfair when my mother took a pen and drew a line on a map that I was forbidden to cross. I didn’t know why I was allowed to attend public school with children who lived in the projects, or why we shared the same grocery store just blocks away, yet I was not permitted to enter their neighbourhood.

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Each of us engages in a private cartography, the fence posts of which are known only to ourselves. Of all the boundaries that separate us from each other, few are more sacrosanct than the invisible lines we habitually draw between others and ourselves in public.

When I was 14, I started sneaking out to gay cruising spots in downtown Chicago looking for discreet sexual encounters. Driven to discard everything I had been told about the threat of strangers, I began to construct elaborate fictions regarding my whereabouts, the people I was associating with, and the nature of my relationships. I wanted a physical connection, but I also felt the desire for friendship and affection that I believed weren’t possible living a double life. Occasionally, men would take me home and afterwards want to hold me, touching my body in a tender manner that helped me understand not only palpable desire, but the experience, however brief, of a kind of love between strangers.

Urban life forces us into shared spaces with members of other tribes, and out of this circumstantial density we create a larger family for ourselves, however dysfunctional. At an early age, unseen connections between strangers in the city, and the negative space between them, became visible to me as the singular adhesive tissue linking communities, binding each of us together into small universes, unaware of the power of each other’s gravitational pull.

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Early in my career as a photographer, I discovered that the fearlessness I had acquired in approaching strange men suited me well in my work as a street portraitist. I had a talent for casting strangers, suffering little awkwardness when self-tasked with approaching them for a picture. Asking strangers for photographs elicits reactions along a spectrum, as if one had proposed something either as anodyne as sharing a cup of coffee, or requested a spontaneous and public sexual favor.

In 2004 I began a series of portraits titled See America by Bus. I traveled to Greyhound stations across the country documenting a grueling subculture of transcontinental bus travel. Framing my subjects inside these harshly lit purgatories, I hoped to connect with the travelling dreamers for whom the promise of America had proven illusory. It was on the long, communal benches of these transitory spaces that I first confronted the unusual circumstance of asking people who were strangers to each other to pose together in one of my portraits. The challenge of coordinating two or more strangers in the same image appealed to me, and in thinking about how I could expand on the theme, I thought of this: What would happen if I asked people to touch one another? The question became the genesis of Touching Strangers.

I wanted to know what would happen if I asked my subjects to reach through and beyond their taboos. I wanted to observe the physical vocabulary that would emerge when a photographer directs strangers who have been approached randomly on the street, and who have been introduced to each other only moments before, to touch each other’s bodies.

Collectively, we still hold fast to the idea of photographs as unambiguous documents of specific events. From the very moment of its invention, photographers have been uniquely and unfairly burdened by this naive assumption. A photograph is no more reliable an instrument of truth than the human eye. The moments captured in Touching Strangers were orchestrated. They are fictional, spontaneous relationships acted out as street performances in front of my 8-by-10 view camera. The participants did not know each other and may never meet again. And yet, these recorded moments of contact will now permanently exist as connections between two or more human beings, all strangers to each other. On completing one of these photographs, there was often a feeling that something rare and unrepeatable had just occurred.

What was initially for me a sociological experiment is for the viewer often something quite different. Some who have viewed these photographs have been moved to tears. Others find the project disturbing. These two extremes represent unusually intense emotional responses to photography, a medium that is veering away in its contemporary practice from emotional subject matter into more conceptual and esoteric terrain. It was my hope with this project to inject a new and unpredictable variable into a traditional photographic equation.

Touching Strangers might well be about my own search for intimacy, my desire to visually articulate and to cross the unseen boundaries that separate us from one another. I want to recapture the sentiment that made me eager to feel the touch of those strange hands on Sunday mornings nearly 40 years ago; to gauge the potential of every passing stranger to be a lover, a partner, or a friend.

This is an edited extract from Touching Strangers (Aperture, 2014)

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