A battered old hatchback rolls up outside Folkestone Central station and George Georgiou – with a shy, blokey smile – leans over to pop the passenger door before driving me through the seaside town he now calls home. He sits in the driver’s seat as if he were in his armchair at home. For a long time, a car was the closest thing he had to a home. He has driven all over the world with his wife, photographer Vanessa Winship, covering thousands upon thousands of miles, travelling all over Turkey, the Balkans, Georgia and Ukraine for a decade, then across the US. It has been a long journey, motivated solely by his desire to tell people’s stories.
“Welcome to my hotel,” he says in that distinctive north London accent. On the seafront, Georgiou leads me up the steps and into the heart of a grand, faded old building. It was indeed once a hotel, and the patterned carpets and ornate banisters remain. “It reminds me of The Shining a bit,” he says, with half a smile. Now it’s private flats, home to the town’s old timers and young couples settling from London and enduring the commute. Georgiou has lived here with Winship for the past two years, travelling to London to work, piece by piece, on his homecoming project, a remarkable look at a capital in a profound state of flux, taken from the uncontrolled and serendipitous perspective of the buses he rode as a kid.[bjp_ad_slot]
The project, titled Last Stop, has been turned into a book with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, and it gets its official London launch at Offspring Photo Meet this Sunday. It is a tribute, he says, to a city he still calls home but which he hardly recognised when he got back from his travels. “The economy boomed, and then broke, and then boomed again,” he says. “The wealth gap increased. Somehow, all this diversity found a way to co-exist.”
Their flat is a beauty; airy, elegant and old. Wide windows show the English Channel spread out a stone’s throw away; today it’s moody and choppy, but on a clear day, says Georgiou, you can see all the way to Calais. Stunning prints hang on the walls, photographs of Turkish children taken at the turn of the 20th century by the Macedonian-Greek photographer Leonidas Papazoglou. On the balcony, fag ends lie in an orangey-beige kaleidoscope; it’s where Georgiou pauses for a few moments, a few times a day, to look out over the sea. There is no TV, but a bookshelf spans the length of one wall, covered in photography books.
Winship greets me from the sofa. She is still and reserved, outwardly at odds with the deep emotionalism of her own work. Georgiou is fuzzier, softer than the stern man that glares at you from his website. The two are grandparents to a little girl called Bella; their son and his partner are in the process of moving from London to Folkestone so they can more easily share in taking care of the child. Georgiou and Winship are currently renting, but hope to buy the flat next door. The most flighty, restless and independent couple in British photography seem almost settled.
“Money? I pull pints and sell ice cream,” Winship once said during an interview with British Journal of Photography. “I’m hugely in debt and have made massive financial sacrifices for my work,” Georgiou said in another. “But I don’t own anything, and have no fear for the future.” Artists of all media love to frame themselves as outsiders and outliers, rebels to the system. Very, very few actually are, because very, very few are willing to take the risks, to put in the time, to live without the securities of a normal life. Winship and Georgiou defiantly fit into that category. The pair met on a photography course at the age of 24; she looked younger than her years, uncertain in herself, fresh to the capital from a childhood spent in Barton-upon-Humber, the small fishing town on one end of the Humber Bridge in Lincolnshire. He was loud and cocksure, the know-it-all north Londoner. Both had partners at the time, but it made no difference.
They have spent nearly every day together since, working in their own way, for their own purposes, alone and in private. They have never chased, nor been regularly published by, the magazines. They haven’t spent their time on glitzy, payday assignments, nor have they done much in the way of self-publicity. For a long time, their exhibitions were few and far between. When they did take place, no one really heard about them. The pair remain suspicious of the fine art world, suspicious of the magazine industry’s commitment to serious work, suspicious of the global news agenda as a whole. They wouldn’t know PR if it bit them, and they don’t give much of a damn. And so, as they lived in and described the realities of Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey and the US, the British photography scene seemed to forget about them. They should be regarded as among the leading photographers of their generation, yet – until recently – they were hardly known.
But something has begun to change for Georgiou and Winship, a coming out of the shell, or the world waking up to their talents. There seems to be tacit acceptance on their part that, long after it was due, they are gaining a reputation. “We are no longer in debt,” Georgiou says. “I think our stubborn persistence and belief in our work has, after half a working lifetime, started to pay off. This can always change, as we live in a world dominated by trends. But, still, I see no reason to live with a fear of insecurity.”
Meaning of time
The pair have strikingly different styles. She works in monochrome, he in colour; she works in film, he in digital. She focuses on posed portraits that feel very much like a private exchange between subject and artist, or poetic studies of natural occurrences – trees, birds, wildlife – in human contexts. He is much more material, triangulating people within their built environments. But their photography shares one definitive trait; a belief in the meaning of time. They share a willingness to work from a fixed position, to invest in one place, to take the same picture again and again until a genuine insight is won.
“A lot of photography isn’t supported by ideas,” Georgiou says. “And that results in a lot of photography stories becoming accidentally repetitive, and so not telling me anything new. The craft of photography – that can be learned quite easily. The idea behind the work – that’s the hardest part. To not try and say something, but instead ask the right questions.” They aim to demonstrate “that a photograph is not so much the result of what’s in front of the camera, but rather the motives and instincts of the person behind it”, he adds.
Framing the everyday
When he first moved to Georgia and then Ukraine, Georgiou wanted to understand the influence Mother Russia still held over the newly independent countries. When in Turkey, he wanted to understand the realities of the secular Islamic country, the literal bridge between the Western World and the Middle East, just a few years after the 9/ 11 attacks and now deep in the throes of rapid, disorientating modernisation.
“Rules of interaction and proximity are changing between what the French anthropologist Marc Augè calls non-places – public spaces designed for people to move through in solitude but without isolation, layered against an organic historical city with deep traditions, where old and new are interwoven,” he writes for Last Stop, an observation that seems to capture his photography as a whole. He’s developed a way of framing the everyday experience of these ancient and complex cultures by layering, in the same frame, portraiture with landscapes with architectural studies, finding a way of inter-relating the three so they become inseparable. It allows him to turn incidental moments into symbols, of how history pervades on the present, of how other heritages can blend with, or supersede, another. “When you arrive in a place, you are so informed by images. It is a burden you have to lose,” he said about his work in an interview with BJP in 2008. “You look for difference, which is something else you have to get over. Then you look for what is familiar, and then – only then – can you appreciate what is different.”
In 2011, Winship submitted a proposal to the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, the Paris-based organisation that awards grants allowing photographers to complete otherwise impossible projects. She was awarded €30,000 for her work – the first time a woman had won the prize in 23 years – with the commitment that it would be published and exhibited in Paris two years later. Her proposal was simple: she wanted to drive across America taking photographs, her take on the well- trodden journey, following in the footsteps of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. In her proposal, she wrote of America as a place “that, like a famous personality, we all think we know, and as a result treat with a certain familiarity, from exposure to American film, literature and popular culture. “I carry with me a spectrum of secondhand experiences, sometimes facts, sometimes little fictions. I am drawn to discover it for myself.”
Just before they left for the States, in September of that year, Winship’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By December, he was dead. She described the last time she saw him in an interview with the Financial Times. Gathered with her mother and three of her four siblings around his hospital bed in Lincolnshire, he asked them, in order of seniority, to tell him about their daily lives. “So my mother listed what she’d been doing, and then my sister spoke about her daughter graduating, and I wittered on about this prize, and then my brother, who is the quiet one, spoke about these birds he’d seen, because my father called himself an amateur ornithologist, so that meant something to him, and it was kind of poignant.”
Once in America, her brother would text her updates of their father’s health, and of the birds he’d seen along the banks of the Humber. She told the Financial Times Weekend Magazine: “I had read Richard Powers’ book, <ahref=”https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jan/06/featuresreviews.guardianreview33″ target=”_blank”>The Echo Maker, which is partly about sandhill cranes – ‘echo makers’ is the name Native Americans give them. They are some of the oldest species of bird on Earth, and they have a built-in memory, they know how to migrate. So while I was in America, I hunted for these birds, and my father and the birds and this thing about America fitted together. I felt the birds carrying the memory of my father.”
Winship and Georgiou have always worked simultaneously, but on this occasion he decided to support her, dampening his own compulsion to visually understand America in order to facilitate hers. They hired a car and slept in motels, and he drove her the whole way. She would see something in the trees and he would slam on the brakes, then reverse back, then a little forward, then a little further back, so she could gain the perfect angle. It gave him time to consider what to photograph next, and he realised that, on his return, he would have to reassess his home. He started working on Last Stop as soon as they got back. It is “a work designed to look at the topography and migrations of London”, he says. “All over the world, London is now a sort of promised land – the last stop on a journey. This migration to the city applies to us all. It’s this constant movement, this sharing of space, which fascinates me. I wanted to try to understand the emotional content of London’s everyday movements, rhythms and rituals.”
The son of Greek Cypriots, Georgiou grew up in London during the 1970s, an angry and unfocused teen out for a good time. He’d jump on buses with his mates and traverse the city, just for the sake of it. Photography was not exactly a priority: “I got an ‘ungraded’ for my A-level photography – that’s not even a fail.” But, after a decade away, he found the city almost unrecognisable to the one he remembered as a youth. “History had transpired to make it the most international place on Earth,” he says. “I was amazed at how the city had opened up to people who had never before had a connection to Britain. I thought it was fascinating and positive, seeing so many different people living together, and somehow mostly making it work.”
Embracing “the challenge of not having full control”, he caught a train to London every week, climbed aboard a random double-decker bus and, from that vantage point, captured the city’s ebb and flow. Taking whatever seat was free, he would shoot freely, his subjects often oblivious to him. “I would see tiny scenes that could be from a soap opera, and would find myself making up the narrative,” he says. An old woman exchanges a cigarette with two young guys in a beat up corner of Peckham, an argument in a restaurant in Notting Hill, a homeless man awakes on the wet streets of Zone One, young children chase each other in the cramped grounds of a suburban council estate. “I don’t know who they are, but a dynamic, an open- ended narrative, is taking place,” he says.
The upper and lower decks each provide their own perspective; downstairs he was within inches of his subjects – “so close, I could almost touch them”. Upstairs, a broader view of the city unfurled itself. He photographed the way buildings, streets, activities and proximities change from one borough to the next, adapting – or in some cases failing to adapt – to such a vast movement of people. Some of his subjects lean close together, others are alone. Some are engaged, feeding off the crowd. Others seem alienated, cowed by a sense of insignificance. “From this vantage point I was able to capture the complex phenomenon of urban stratification,” he says. “How different people use the city through the day, how new layers of architecture, signage and street furniture add to what was already there. How different social, economic and ethnic groups appropriate, shape and adapt to the city.”
In the wake of all the heated debate on what it is to be European in a globalised world, Georgiou sees these photographs as showing a city “at the forefront of multicultural assimilation in Europe, allowing a privileged point of observation for the possible shape of other European cities”.
Georgiou wanted Last Stop to reflect the way he’d made the images. He devised a connected reel of images echoing the experience of staring out of a bus window. Presented in a concertina, they can be viewed in any order, allowing the reader to create his or her own sequence within the structure he’s created. The result is, perhaps, a little like life itself.
The sun drops below the sea line, and I must make my way back to London. On the drive back to the station, he tells me about his plans for the Christmas period, of numerous parties with the large family he was, for a long time, embarrassed by and now values dearly. I ask if he misses living in the midst of the city. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Of course. It’s nice to be a bit more settled here, but I go stir crazy if I spend too long in Folkestone. I’ve felt like that about a lot of places, but never London. However much it has changed, it will always be my home.”