Street photography stories: Russia, Poland and Eastern Europe with Richard Morgan

After completing his PhD at UCL’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, Richard Morgan took his lens to Poland to document the post-industrial heart of Europe. In this interview Richard discusses his appetite for capturing antithesis in street photography. 

Would you primarily describe yourself as a street photographer?

I define myself as a street photographer because my work is about engaging with the chaos that we usually associate with streets, that we associate with the uncontrollable movements of people and things in cities, and trying to make sense of that chaos.

Are there particular things you’re trying to give the viewer an insight into when you take a photograph?

I’m trying to show something lasting and meaningful, perhaps even fundamental about the place or the society I’m in. I’m trying to do this in split-second moments, in temporary arrangements. I don’t consider what I do as reportage or social documentary. My experiences of travel are quite present in the photographs I take, or at least I want them to be. I want the viewer to see the emotions, sensations, and/or feelings that I had when I was in that place.

You’ve had a particular focus on Eastern Europe and Poland. In what way is it an engaging part of the world for you?

I was a student of Russian and East European studies so I guess it’s a natural progression from that. Also, there’s the feeling of being British in this region. I find this interesting. I didn’t move to Poland because of Brexit, but it made sense and continues to make sense in light of Brexit. I liked the idea of going to the heart of Europe, when Britain seemed to be turning its back on Europe. I liked the idea illuminating that and wanted to go and confront, look, travel, and explore Europe in what I felt to be a closing-off sort of situation in Britain.

Do you think that influenced the way you shot, compared to if there hadn’t been a Brexit?

I mean I’m not trying to show Poland to be an amazing place and bring my work back to the UK and say, ‘Hey Britain, look what you’re losing.’ I actually think all my stuff is pretty ambivalent and you’re going to get bleakness and isolation and vulnerability in my pictures. I’m not presenting Poland to be beautiful or something we’ve lost.

You primarily work in black and white. Do you ever find black and white compounds the scope of your work or does it does it contribute to producing a particular style?

Joel Meyerowitz talks about colour being central, and once he started using colour he couldn’t stop. For him New York had to be in colour, he was almost doing the city a disservice if he wasn’t shooting in colour. I don’t think Poland is grey and austere, that’s not really why I’m shooting in black and white. I guess it’s about what I’m looking for on the street. I’m looking for texture and contrast and tension. I’m just better at doing that in black and white.

There’s an image which you took with graffiti on the wall saying, ‘How can I afford my caviar?‘ Are you consciously introducing a social angle into your work? Or do you think it’s inherent in street photography?

I don’t think it’s inherent in street photography. I mean think about Fan Ho’s street photography – it’s all about light and shadows and mystery, perhaps that’s a social or political statement. I don’t know. But, it seemed to him the arrangement of things in the picture was enough. I’m not trying to push an agenda. I guess I’m drawn to humour, sadness, and contradictions, and we have to face it — inequality does produce an array of those sensations when we’re walking on the street. There are people begging at cash machines with queues of people, in front of lavish advertisements, next to shop windows. These scenes are everywhere, they’re almost becoming clichéd. This certainly features in my Poland project. But the point is, I don’t really find being down and out visually interesting in itself — it has to be in contrast to something, to be playing a duet with something that is ironically contrasting its position in the frame. I’m not going to photograph a difficult situation for the sake of it because I think someone is having a rough time. But, if someone is sitting and begging outside a jewellers and you’ve got people gazing through the window lusting after these items of decoration, then that’s an interesting set up to me. That’s tantalising.

Is that social contrast quite easy to come across?

Yes. For me it’s everywhere and I do it on Oxford Street and I do it everywhere I go. I’m kind of drawn to it.

What themes do you deal with in your photography?

I like ambivalence and I really like ideas of discontinuity and flux. But, I also like isolating moments on the street- heightened human emotions, gestures. Anything that allows me to have an intense confrontation with human life or human behaviour.

Recently shooting in Catholic Churches has been quite an intense experience. You walk into a Catholic Church, and clearly you’re there to take pictures and you’re not going to hide that you’ve got a camera around your neck. Everybody is facing the alter. Everyone is facing God. Then you go to the front, and stand with your back to God and the alter. Everybody is looking at you and you’re there just to look at them. This becomes the point of it. I like shooting Catholic Churches because you get really powerful gestures and moments.

You won the Ben Uri prize for the photograph you took in St Petersburg. How did you approach taking that photo?

I was in St Petersburg in 2011 for Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy in Russian), which marks the end of the Second World War, and there’s a week-long rehearsal for this carnival. I was there learning Russian and I was going out everyday after class to find contrasts between the every-day happenings on the street and the rehearsals for the celebration of victory, patriotism and national becoming. This photo was taken on Nevsky Prospect (which is the main street in St Petersburg). I can’t remember what the two people standing in the image are looking at. I guess it doesn’t matter. The space outside the picture is an important part — the non-space of this photograph.

Of all the places in the world you have photographed, which has surprised you the most in terms of the aesthetic that is produced once the image is on your camera, or on a piece of photo paper?

Let’s say London, because I want to be surprised with that which I’m so familiar with. Probably London.

Who are some photographers you’re particularly inspired by?

Well when I first started getting into photography…it was the classic street photographers – Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank. I really like Frank, because he’s got this long-view project feel to his work. So, when he was traveling in America for two years as an outsider, looking in, trying to tell the story of the people that society ignores — that was inspirational to me, especially with this Poland project. There’s Bob Mazzer and his project on the London Underground, especially the early stuff from that. I think he was doing it for about 30 years. I really liked what he said, which was that when he went there he felt like he was the assigned photographer, commissioned to tell the story of the underground. In that way, he was overcoming the social anxiety of invading people’s spaces and lives, because he had narrativised his own experience as a legitimate practice. There’s a couple of really cool Polish photographers that I like — Bogdan Dziworski — his considered to be a master out there. There’s another guy who did a project — Cardiff After Dark — Maciej Dakowicz. He was a student in Cardiff and used to go out on Friday and Saturday night and take pictures of the chaos and the nightlife.

Street photography is based somewhat on the notion of chance or chance encounters. Do you think we’re moving away from that and constructing street photography or is that a misconception associated with the rise of social media as a platform for photography?

When I’m shooting I experience chance. Literally split-second moments can happen and they’re very difficult to do anything with. You really need to be on the ball. But, then you can find frames in the city — natural frames and you can wait there for a worthy subject matter to enter the frame. Photographers do that a lot and that’s not really chance. That’s constructing an image. John Free is quite strict on the idea of never interfering with the reality you’re trying to photograph. Don’t make it for yourself. Don’t orchestrate it. Don’t direct the reality you want. I was at the top of a staircase recently and I was waiting there and I knew that I needed someone to walk into this layer of light at the bottom of the staircase. I’m waiting there and I’m waiting there and I could have just gone down and got someone off the street to do something funny or unusual. But, I wanted to wait and in the end it turns out that two policemen came to check it out and looked up at me. That was on film, hopefully that will be a nice picture. I do like the idea of chance and spontaneity and I do love the challenge of picking out something central and lasting from the chaos of the city.

What are your hopes for the future of your photography?

I’m going to finish shooting the Poland project on November 1, on All Saint’s Day in Poland, when people go to the graves of their ancestors. I’m going to exhibit that project in early 2018, hopefully in Waterstones on Gower Street, London, and also in Poland at the same time. After that I might move to Ukraine and do a project there. There’s also that project on Oxford Street, which I’m quite inspired to do.

How long do you move out to these places?

It’s temporary permanence, isn’t it? I would say a minimum of six months. After six months you start to feel at home. You feel like you live there. I think that’s the important thing.


All images used with permission from the photographer.