I am often asked why I engage in documentary photography and it’s a difficult question to answer concisely, because there are so many facets to it. One of the simplest is that it is a form of exploration, whether in foreign lands or seconds away from one’s own front door. You never quite know what will unfold, or the interactions you will have, from the hilarious, through deeply touching, to the tragic. Here is one such encounter, which I will also not recount concisely.
In November 2012, I was visiting a friend in London, but having arrived a little too early, I decided to go for a stroll. A few minutes later, I was in Brompton Cemetery for the first time – a vast space, quite improbably tucked away feet from the hustle and bustle of familiar streets. The main boulevard is easily 300 yards long and would possess a certain elegance were it not providing access to the graves of 205,000 people. Even with rows of mature deciduous trees (in full autumn glory at the time) and well-tended paths, it fell just the wrong side of beautiful to my eyes. A truly staggering number of crows perched on stone tombs and clustered in low hanging branches, dripping from recent rain. With such visible custodians and acres of lichen-strewn stone, this is a place of barely concealed darkness and a compelling one. In all my life, I have never seen such a density of these birds and, considering their favoured diet (meat), well, you know what I was thinking.
After a meandering walk during which I took in some of the more dramatic mausoleums and military graves, I headed back towards the main gate in full ‘thought mode.’ Shortly after, the sky filled with racing black shapes, which poured from one end of the cemetery to the other – the end I was soon to arrive at. Partially hidden behind broad leaves, I could just see outline of a frail old man, who leant down and placed an old ‘ready meal’ on the grass near to the main entrance. Green peas spilled out onto the ground, causing the birds to jostle with each other and snap away frantically during brief moments of balance. Judging by their behaviour, this was a regular occurrence. I immediately thought of ‘The Disorder of Species’ and the relationships between man and beast that I had explored in Varanasi, India. Seeing people feed pigeons is hardly novel, but there was something intriguing about the way this gentleman was enveloped by countless jet black crows, none of which showed the slightest caution (they are normally such wary birds). It was also hard not to recall historical accounts of crows shadowing armies on the march and to wonder whether the crows were eyeing their benefactor with the same hopeful anticipation.
We got chatting and it transpired that Henry (along with another chap) fed the birds regularly with their leftovers. Despite his troubled hearing, we managed to have a very pleasant conversation in which he told me of his passion for singing, which he understandably struggled to maintain in his old age. With difficulty hearing, dentures and a distinct forward curvature, the growing separation between his heart’s desire and his body’s capabilities was evidently painful.
Henry told me that he lived only yards away and fed the birds at about the same time every day, so I knew that should I wish to photograph him at a later date I could. He looked so vulnerable standing there as he was in his worn out clothes in an otherwise upmarket area, his evident sensitivity contrasting with the impersonal urban throng behind us. By this time I needed to go, so stretched out my hand, which he grasped in his. Noting his jarring fragility, I thanked him for the chat, wished him well and said goodbye. He paused, as if to find words, finally commenting with apparent seriousness that I had very large hands. Now holding on very much tighter, he drew close, fixed me with an inviting twinkle in his eye and asked “Is everything of yours this big?