There was a time when photographers would hang out at the lab to find out what was happening, but these days we find ourselves alone at our desks wondering if we’re the only ones waiting for the phone to ring. Now, social media channels like Twitter are giving us new ways to reach out to the image making community and beyond. Here photographer Chris Floyd tells Eleanor O’Kane why 140 characters have made all the difference to his working life.
I’ve never met portrait and editorial photographer Chris Floyd, but I do know quite a bit about him. I know that he loves Italian-American mob dramas, that the use of bad English infuriates him and that his appetite for photography is as voracious as Tony Soprano’s ego. I know all these things because I follow him on Twitter. If Chris Floyd finds something amusing or sad, unfair or interesting, I know about it within minutes. He’s there last thing at night and when I wake up in the morning.
In November the HOST Gallery in East London is exhibiting Floyd’s One Hundred & Forty Characters project – a series of portraits of people from his Twitter network. For him, the microblogging site was a starting block for rebuilding his social network in the post-darkroom age.
Talk to any photographer who has worked in the industry for more than a decade and they will reminisce about the good old days of labs; immediately transported back in a chemical haze of dev and fix. These smells have evaporated from the lives of professional photographers, taking with them the vital social and networking opportunities an afternoon at the lab, mug in hand, offered. Now for much of the time, professional photographers sit alone at their desks wondering if they are the only ones waiting for the next commission.
“When I started out I was shooting film, which meant I went out a lot,” says Floyd, who started his career shooting for magazines such as Q and Smash Hits and now has clients such as The Sunday Times Style magazine and Agent Provocateur. “I’d spend hours and hours in the lab and I’d meet all these people there. When you think how quickly digital has taken over, it killed film off in a two-year window really. So nowadays you spend hours and hours at your desk and don’t meet anybody.”
Two-and-a-half years ago Floyd joined Twitter; emitting short, regular bursts that referenced his experiences, his photography and even unintentionally amusing things his wife sometimes said. Since then he’s been garnering a group of followers from worlds that overlap his own. Floyd’s gang is made up largely of photographers, but among the mix there are well-known names in media, the odd celebrity and undistinguished people like me, who have stumbled across him in the Twittersphere and thought it worth clicking the ‘Follow’ button. Many of us, like Floyd, are freelancers, working alone at home. “It’s like having your own virtual workmates,” he says of his network. “What has really struck me about all these people I talk to on Twitter is that I communicate with them more than with my real friends. Even though I’ve never really met many of them, I’m curious about them.”
This desire to connect in real life coincided with a lull in work last July. The phones were silent, he hadn’t really seen anyone for days and the ‘Black Dog’ was scratching at his office door. From this mix a personal project was hatched and Floyd appealed to his Twitter followers to come and be photographed in his West London studio.
At first the project didn’t have a set ending. “It was just this idea; it didn’t have a format or anything,” Floyd recalls. “But quickly I realised the portraits had to be of a uniform nature, so I used a white background. I wanted to take everyone out of their own surroundings because the nature of Twitter itself is that everyone’s in the same space.”
Of the neatness of the project title, One Hundred & Forty Characters (reflecting the number of characters allowed in a single tweet), the self-effacing Floyd admits it wasn’t a clever move on his part – at least not at first. “The concept of One Hundred & Forty Characters wasn’t an idea at the beginning. A couple of weeks after I started shooting I thought, ‘This could go on forever.’ So I decided 100 was a good number. When I had reached about 85 I thought about getting a poster designed for the project and when I saw the design I decided there weren’t quite enough people involved. I did another round in February 2011 and started asking for more people. I got an enormous response and around 50 people volunteered, so I did all of them. When I added them all up I had about 136. Then finally it hit me and I thought, ‘140’. About 16 seconds later, a second thought hit me: ‘Characters’.”
At this point he could have told me: “Yes, it was always going to be called One Hundred & Forty Characters; isn’t that clever?” But that’s not really his style. In the same way he doesn’t use Twitter as a marketing tool – not consciously anyway. He has what he calls ‘a complete lack of guile’, which stems from never having worked in the corporate world. With the exception of a brief spell in a call centre at the beginning of his working life he has only ever earned a crust as an assistant and then as a freelance photographer. “I use Twitter to speak to people. Thoughts peck at me and I have to get them out, so I just reach for my phone. There’s no real marketing ploy; although I am aware that sometimes I say things I shouldn’t, that I need to hold back.”
He thinks that a lot of companies haven’t quite grasped the spirit of Twitter. “I have friends who pitch social media contracts where every tweet has to be approved by about 27 people before it can be sent. Twitter works when people are completely honest. When people are interesting or funny and can demonstrate they have something to say it’s great; rather than when the message is, ‘Here’s this new thing we’ve done.’
“I think it might work to be calculating on one level but I don’t think there’s longevity in that. The reason I can be so open, the reason I can do that is because when it comes down to it, photographically, I know what I’m doing. What counts is the work. I know – and no one can argue with this – that I’m a professional photographer. I’m not an artist. When I go to do a job I’m doing it on behalf of someone else, and when I turn up for that job I know I can do it. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. I’m not fazed by any situation. At the heart of it I can do my job. Twitter isn’t a smokescreen.”
Of his 2,000-plus followers he reckons 80 per cent are photographers, allowing him to reignite the pre-digital era spirit of working as a community. “What I really love sharing is my experiences. A lot of the people who follow me are a lot younger than me. When I was an assistant I worked for a couple of photographers who weren’t well known but were really good at their craft. They were great to me and I learned a lot from them. One in particular let me use his equipment and his studio; he even came along on a couple of jobs that I was nervous about and worked as my assistant. I’ve always been aware of the importance of that. I like to see people develop; I enjoy it. I do the same for my own assistants.
“When I see another photographer tweeting about being in a certain situation and I’ve been there, well, I know how they feel. So I try to reassure them and offer advice on how to get through it because I’ve been there. That’s one of the things I love about Twitter.”
For Floyd, social networking does something to ease the dichotomy of being a professional photographer; of working alone but needing the support of one’s peers, who are also one’s rivals. “What we as photographers do is individual in nature and you have to be ruthless in eliminating the opposition with your work. By that I mean you want your work to completely represent you. When you look at, say, Terry Richardson’s work you know it’s by Terry Richardson. When you see David LaChappelle’s images you know they are by David LaChappelle. So you have to be ruthless with your work, but at the same time you need to make friends with people.
“For that reason I envy musicians because they work so much more collaboratively. If you play the drums, you can do that as much as you like but no one’s really going to want to hear you unless you work with other musicians. When I look at friends of mine who are musicians, I realise how much more collaborative they are in the way they behave. It’s the nature of what they do and I’m jealous of that.”
In his pictures [One Hundred & Forty Characters], many of the subjects challenge the viewer brazenly. Someone trails across the frame towards an out-of-sight door, while others stand around in conversation. “In quite a lot of the pictures people aren’t actually looking at the camera,” Floyd explains. “I position the camera at around waist height, keep my finger on the shutter and just talk to everyone, so the subjects are actually looking at me.” The images often reflect the subjects’ Twitter habits; those who spark off each other online sharing the same frame. The 140 subjects are captioned by their Twitter identities only. There’s an equality to the subjects in this stripped-back aesthetic as there is Twitter itself where you are what you tweet.
The project has taken up around a year of Floyd’s life, wedged between other projects and commissions. He believes that one of best things about adventures like One Hundred & Forty Characters is that they give you something to talk to prospective clients about. “It’s not enough any more to say, ‘I do pictures and I can do them for you if you want.’ If you want people to be interested in you, you have to do interesting things.”
And people are interested. As well as the inevitable slew of orders for his poster from many – but not all – of those who took part, there have been orders from the States, including a couple from the people at Twitter, Inc. who bought them for their New York and San Francisco offices. One of the outtakes from the project, of the writer and critic Caitlin Moran, is the cover of Moran’s bestselling new book, How to be a Woman; an image that so charmed the National Portrait Gallery that it acquired it, crowning it ‘Photograph of the Month’ in August 2011. An audio file on Floyd’s blog, comprising 14 minutes of subjects talking about what Twitter means to them, has proved a hit; perhaps because, like Floyd, we all want to know more about the people behind the @ signs. Among the variety of accents and experiences, the audio has a reassuringly common thread – we all want to reach out and find other people who share the same small pleasures, and doubts, as ourselves.
“At the heart of it we are pack animals,” concludes Floyd. “We do want to share things. We do want to talk to other people. That’s what this project has all been about really. Despite technology’s determination to isolate us, we still want to talk to each other.” And so the interview ends and we both go back to our desks, willing the little window to pop up in the corner of our screens, telling us there’s someone out else there.
© Eleanor O’Kane 2012
Follow Floyd on Twitter: @chrisfloyduk