Street Photography and Annan Through a Pandemic

Tom Langlands was born in Dundee, Scotland. He graduated with a B.Sc. in Architecture and a B.Arch (Hons) from Dundee University and an M.Arch – in architectural semiotics – from Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. In parallel with his academic studies, he developed a serious interest in writing, photography and philosophy. These skills have merged to create a desire to understand and explore how we perceive the world we live in.

Having retired in 2013 from the architectural practice he co-founded in 1988, Tom now spends his time writing and taking photographs. He is a regular photojournalist contributor to the North American magazine Celtic Life International and his work has appeared in numerous publications at home and abroad.

Tom’s images have received commendations and awards in the British Wildlife Photography Awards and the Scottish Nature Photography Awards and have been exhibited at the Scottish International Salon of Photography and the Edinburgh International Exhibition of Photography. He has also held several solo photography exhibitions. His poetry has appeared in print and online in Southlight, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine and The Blue Nib. He often uses his photography as inspiration for his writing.

It was inevitable – having mastered the basics of photography and having trained as an architect – that I spent a lot of time photographing buildings around the world. For reasons that I mentioned in my previous blog, I had discovered the joy of nature and wildlife photography and when I wasn’t photographing buildings, I was photographing subjects of the natural world. It was while exploring these two quite distinct genres of photography that I began to understand how they could be brought together in street photography in a quite unique way. 

The great American documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt (now aged 93) once said, ‘All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.’ One thing I had learned was how to observe. I had spent many hours studying animals in their natural environment. I understood animal behaviour and learned how to deduce what may happen next in given situations. As animals, humans are no different – something that Desmond Morris understood rather well when he wrote The Human Zoo back in 1969. I was comfortable in cities and knew how to look for places on streets where interesting things may happen. Light and shade, texture and pattern, colour and detail were all part of my job and so the progression to street photography felt comfortable and natural. But there had to be more to it than that; there needed to be a story – a narrative that draws the viewer into the shot and holds them. 

For me, street photography is visual prose. It’s the difference between recording a moment and creating a mystery. It has as much to do with what the image doesn’t show as what it does. As the Belgian surrealist René Magritte noted, ‘Each thing we see hides something else we want to see.’ I wanted to create images that evoked feelings and in which the viewer would not only see the obvious but would also be compelled to interpret and to imagine. I wanted viewers to look into my images rather than at them. 

A lot of my street photography is monochromatic. I shoot all my photographs in colour, but usually I know at the time of taking which will work better in colour and which in monochrome. There are occasions when colour is interesting and necessary but different colours draw the eye to different parts of the image and shift the viewer’s focus. By removing colour the image becomes more coherent, and the overall story takes centre stage. Knowing that certain images will convert to monochrome enables me to shoot in lighting conditions that I would avoid for other types of photography. Colour requires good lighting while shades of grey can work well with lower lighting levels – i.e., on dull days. Similarly, bright sunlight creates harsh lighting. With colour work I often avoid days like that but with street photography strong shadows and stark contrast can be used to advantage. 

When I walk city streets, I look for fleeting moments in places where I know interactions will occur such as in markets or railway stations. I spend a lot of time looking at backgrounds and often it’s the background that I find first, and I must wait for the people to arrive – rather like waiting for actors to populate an empty stage. Sometimes the moment is so fleeting that I must grab the opportunity in a split-second while other images take a lot of thought, planning and preparation. I try to explore different themes in my work such as love, humour, or grittier issues such as homelessness. If my photography raises awareness of the plight of others and in so doing makes people think, then I have achieved something. By photographing other people, I attempt to demonstrate that there are common issues that affect us all.

When Coronavirus hit the world and my then hometown of Annan went into lockdown, I found that walking the empty streets enabled me to see the town afresh; the architecture and history of the place shone again. I realised that, like the rest of the world, we were living through a unique moment in history. With that in mind I set about documenting the town through these strange times. I wanted to show the beauty of the buildings – along with the occasional eyesore – so that we can all reflect on what we have and what we are in danger of losing. 

I wanted to show people coming back onto the streets in small, tentative numbers and then in greater numbers. I wanted to record what it was like when we started wearing masks and how some people found fun in personalising these masks. I wanted to capture the difficulties, the sadness and the hope and joy that shone through from smiles behind the masks. As we took small steps back to normality, I wanted to show how difficult it was for some shopkeepers to make a living through these times and how other businesses embraced the changes.

When I started the project early in 2020, I had no idea we would still be suffering the effects of the pandemic two years later. Consequently, the project is perhaps one of the most comprehensive photography projects undertaken in Annan’s history. With hundreds of photographs of the town and its people taken over a 12-month period, I believe that the images document an important piece of social history.

Occasionally I am asked if I seek permission from my subjects before I photograph them. The answer is that sometimes I do but not very often. The reason is simple: the moment you ask permission the story you were trying to capture changes and the mystery you wanted to create is lost forever. My aim is to capture moments that partly tell a story but leave the viewer to finish it – and that includes me. Some of my images act as inspiration for my own short stories and poetry and even after many years I still contemplate the people or situations that I captured and imagine their ongoing stories. Did the homeless person get a house? Did they survive the last bitter winter? Are they still living on the streets somewhere? 

All the images here may be fleeting moments in time, but they are also fragments of lives lived.

Tom Langlands 

Our monthly flash theme for January is New Year, New Hobbies.

Are you taking up a new hobby, interest or project this year? If so, we’d love you to tell us about it. Our special focus this month is on photography as a new project, so please either send us a recent photograph you’ve taken as part of a new photography hobby, or send us a flash submission (350 words or less) telling us about your new hobby or venture with an accompanying photo. The flash submission can take the form of a poem, short memoir, anecdote or story, but MUST be accompanied by a relevant photo.

Entries are free and close at midnight on January 31st and we’ll choose our favourites from the submissions in early February. The winner will receive a copy of the Poetry of Entanglement book produced by our January bloggers, Tom Langlands and Marianna Armatta, and the runner-up will receive a Poetry Of Entanglement calendar.

9 thoughts on “Street Photography and Annan Through a Pandemic”

        1. I’ve just completed the Poetry of Entanglement book and calendar in conjunction with the very talented Canadian photographer Marianna Armata. It was created entirely to raise money on both sides of the Atlantic for two leading mental health charities – more about this in my third blog due, I believe, to be made available here before the end of January. The book has just sold out and the last remaining copy is held by Autumn Voices as a prize in their current Open Submissions. Regarding the future, I always have lots of ideas – not all of which make it to fruition (lol)! The issue with books is keeping the cost down low enough and selling enough copies to make it commercially viable. It is something I am thinking about but am not yet quite sure what would work – eg wildlife/street photography – short stories/poems. If you would like to make any suggestions I’d be delighted to hear your (and anyone else’s) views on this.
          Thank you for engaging with my blog and for your comments – much appreciated.

  1. Thanks for replying to my query. I can imagine your stunning photos and easy, engaging writing style combining so well in a book. Perhaps more of your personal story plus explanations/stories about the photographs and how you took them, in prose and, where it suits, in poems too. And I think your wildlife photos and your street photos would sit side by side so well… complementary perspectives of life on Earth! If you ever do publish a book I’d certainly buy it. Best wishes.

    1. Thank you Ann. That’s certainly food for thought. I shall mull that over – it’s a very interesting idea. Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on reaching 100! Nice work.

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