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Interview: Richard Harris, photographer

06 May 2022

‘When I capture a decisive moment, to hear the shutter, and see time stretched to infinity — that’s quite something’

I began photography sideways — as part of my painting discipline. I’d draw and paint from photos rather than have people sit for me. Eventually, I began to love the process of conceptualising and taking photographs as much as the art I’d create from them.
 

Caravaggio’s command of light and colour and his use of shadow and negative space really shifted how I thought about light, and how to use darkness — not constantly trying to rid the frame of it, but to use it as a tool. Alex Ross is another artist who inspires me in that way. Early on, Cristina Cocullo was unspeakably helpful. She’d flick through my prints, hand me five, and say: “Go and shoot more like this.” The rest she’d throw away.
 

I borrowed my first camera from school in return for doing pictures for their newsletter. I worked in a game shop to save up for a camera. It was to cost £180, which was the most money I’d spent on anything, and I was terrified. I remember walking there and praying: “Should I give this money to my mum? OK, I don’t know if this is the right thing, God. If it is, then make them give me a discount so I know.” The shop offered me a discount, and I bought it for around £120.
 

I shoot portraits, and work with brands. I sometimes run workshops for street photographers. That’s a lot of fun.
 

I work with a Fuji system, predominantly with manual-focus lenses old and new. I began shooting on 35mm film. My most faithful camera for years was an old Cosina Hi-lite from the late ’50s. When I moved to digital cameras, there was something missing — and it wasn’t just the endless hours spent in dank basements inhaling chemicals. There’s something about having a camera that doesn’t get in your way. When I was shooting film, it felt like making images, and my camera was a tool to that end. When I moved to digital, it felt like the camera was wrestling with me to take its own image, which was not often in line with mine.
 

I have a bigger system now, but the X-Pro1 still really calls to me. It entices me to shoot. That’s the camera I encourage people to look for: the one that calls you to go and take photographs.
 

I’m not a huge fan of traditional wedding photography. I’m more of a reportage photographer. Philip Jones Griffiths says: “We are there with our cameras to record reality. Once we start modifying that which exists, we are robbing photography of its most valuable attribute.” But if people are interested in a reportage record of their special day, I’m up for doing weddings.
 

Dr Dre in Hamburg booked us into a screening of Everybody Street, a documentary about New York street photographers in the ’60s and ’70s. Watching that gave me a real sense of excitement and, maybe, validation. It was as though we were being let in on a secret that within all of these ordinary moments — an average day, on an average street, in an ordinary life — if we can slow down long enough, there is some quality, some universal magic hidden within.
 

I paint, mostly with oils. I draw, and I write poetry and short stories. Perhaps because I’m neurodivergent, these all feel very similar. These are all tools to the same end, and I’m perhaps less interested in pitting them against one another as in blending them together slowly.
 

It’s fascinating to spend time with people, hear their stories and reflect back to them. They often say: “I’ve never seen myself this way,” or “I never look good in photos, but I love these.” No trick, no big lights, and no pomp: just a little manual-focus lens and the truth. We just have to slow down to see past the veneer. That’s the work I want to create, helping people see something true in themselves, and to heal some wounds and misconceptions along the way. There’s real beauty in that.
 

Photography’s kept me curious, reflective, and creative in my approach to difficulties, both internally and externally.
 

I’ll often approach people on the street or in a shop and ask to take their picture. I’ve had emails later saying that the time spent having their pictures taken by me changed them: they were reconciled with someone, or it opened up a relationship. That’s the art of photography for me: its depth of meaning beyond just the image.
 

I bring myself to every photograph I take. The way I see the world, think, and what I value are all exposed in a very unconscious way. It’s distorted by my own experiences of and reactions to trauma — not the most polarising or extreme incidents of human suffering, but inherent tears in the fabric of life itself: the experience we might have of being screamed at by a parent, or being sent off to boarding school, dad always being too busy to talk to you, being seen as a nuisance. . .
 

These experiences rewire our understanding of love, lay the blueprint for who we think we are, and how we need to relate to the world in order to survive and minimise our suffering. For the most part, we’re entirely unaware that it’s even happened.
 

Learning to see myself is my proudest achievement.
 

My eight-year-old daughter said to me the other day: “I don’t think I’m beautiful, Daddy.” It was a heartbreaking moment, but I asked her: “What do you think beauty is?” We had a wonderful conversation about the pretty girls in her class and the ones that make her feel beautiful, and she ended up saying: “Beautiful people are the ones who make you feel beautiful, not people who are just pretty.” I told her: “You make me feel good; so to me you’re really beautiful. It begins from within.”
 

We dreamed in Monochrome began as a photograph, but whenever I looked at it, I had this incessant feeling that it wasn’t finished, which is not something very congruent with photography. A line played in my mind like a scratched record: “Our thoughts were of memories, long nights, and waking days. . .” One night, that photograph became a poem, and, whenever I read the poem, I would hear music. I’m not a pianist; so I called a friend who told me to record the poem for him. A week later, he sent me a voice note with less than a minute of piano he’d drafted, and I began to cry: it was as I had imagined it.
 

Whenever I would listen to it, I would see these scenes in my mind, and, one day, I began writing, and, a few months later, it turned out to be a screenplay of a multi-generational family saga about grief, trauma, fatherhood, growing up without a father, broken relationships, and ultimately love.
 

My experiences of God are too many, too obscure, and some potentially unbelievable to explore here. When I was 15, someone handed me the Bible and told me it would tell me everything I needed to know about Christianity. It was incredibly interesting, confusing, at points disgusting, and unquestionably compelling. I had many questions, but I wanted to know more about the man near the end named Jesus.
 

Church was just confusing: I was always waiting for it to begin. At the end of the service, I’d ask people excitedly “What do we do now? Where are we going?” until someone kindly pulled me to one side and said: “We’re all going home now. We’re going to have lunch.” “So, when do we do the stuff in the book?” I asked.
 

I entered the Church very poor, and I worked for a long time for affluent churches that didn’t pay me well. I would cycle to work across London on a borrowed BMX because I couldn’t afford to get to the church on public transport. I would get told off for being late to staff meetings in the morning; so I asked if the church could pay for a weekly £13 bus pass. For one reason or another, they didn’t want to do that; so I carried on cycling. I thought every church was poor. It was only when they had a £1.2-million building project that I understood what sort of money was moving through that building.
 

Now again, I’m reading, listening, relearning, unlearning, trying to reintroduce myself to these narratives and concepts while removing the layers that crushed a lot of the tenderness and beauty out of the experience the first time around.
 

Ancient Israel was, at a crucial point in their history, a nation of slaves. Understanding the Bible from the most deprived form of oppression is very challenging, but, if we cannot do this, it’s dangerously easy to intellectualise some very necessarily practical expressions of what Paul means by “the body of Christ”. It could result in those who have power being very comfortable, and those without power going hungry.
 

I gave a talk in a church on racial justice, and someone told me afterwards I should write a book. That’s certainly something on my to-do list, if anyone’s willing to finance it. I’d also like to help protect the mental and emotional health of young people, including those within churches.
 

Injustice angers me. Think of Jesus’s approach to power, the whole concept of first and last. Men have almost exclusively held positions of power both inside and outside of the faith. Perhaps we haven’t been willing enough to ask questions about who is first and who is last, and what that means in terms of the Kingdom Jesus references. But to see the death-grip men have had on power is not so surprising — we were introduced to this in Genesis. I’ve rarely heard people talk about that part of the curse. We seem to be quite uninterested in reversing that.
 

Freedom makes me happy: to no longer be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind — to paraphrase Paul terribly. He describes very counter-cultural communal practices, like disseminating power both internal and external to the community. It’s a very difficult piece of socio-political instruction.
 

It’s interesting that this begins with the renewing of the mind, and this makes me think of trauma. We all perceive the world through our trauma, and act in the world from it. It’s interesting to imagine communities committed to healing from trauma, and how that might free us up to take up these unthinkably challenging instructions from Paul.
 

When I capture a decisive moment, to hear the shutter and see time stretched to infinity — that’s quite something. My children’s laughter is probably the only sound that tops it.
 

I’m a person of colour, and these last couple of years, in light of George Floyd’s murder (and many others), I’ve been meditating a lot on hope: wrestling with the very idea of it, wondering if Jesus was hopeful and what hope meant to him. I found it very difficult to answer that question. Matthew 24 and “man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” came to my mind. If hope is happiness, or some bright and joyful experience, that’s a very difficult and dissonant thing for any oppressed people to reconcile. In Jesus, hope feels weighted with melancholy, His hope was in the suffering he’d face, as I guess ours is, or should be: blood-soaked, oppressed hope. I don’t think people want to feel that kind of hope. It’s freedom, but not as you’d expect it: freedom through death, like exodus. Maybe I’m in a very Easter state of mind, but the Bible is authored by oppressed peoples, I don’t think that is incidental.
 

I pray I’ll worry less about certainty and learn to live from grace and love. I’m not doing well; so please add me to your prayer list if you pray. That I would love, and the world would know that God sent Jesus.
 

I might choose Bon Iver, or perhaps Prince, to be locked in a church with. I’d choose Prince, because I’d want to worship with someone who understood the nuanced struggles that are levied upon oppressed communities, and know how to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. I’m not interested in spiritual escapism or bypassing any more.

 

Richard Harris was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

His new website is the1harris.co.uk; he can be followed in Instagram: @The1Harris. We Dreamed in Monochrome can be heard on Spotify

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