Portrait of Britain: Joe Lang on the significance of one chance encounter

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Photographer Joe Lang met Roxy at Margate Pride. The pair discussed the scenes surrounding them and Lang helped Roxy with her dress. Eventually, she agreed to be photographed. “Shooting at Margate Pride was a way to show my appreciation of the bravery of people who attend these events and the history of progress for human rights,” he explains. “I wanted to capture the diversity, beauty and liberalism that, given the chance, can be so rich in our country.”

Lang photographed Roxy against a backdrop of fairground and blue skies. The bright, sunlight leaps off of her, illuminating Roxy’s fiercely, red hair and contoured complexion. She gazes into the camera through her thick lashes, her head slightly cocked to one side. “The idea that people are allowed to present their true selves sounds like a basic right,” continues Lang, “but, this also can be a hurdle due to social pressures. Gay pride protests in Britain have been around for decades but they remain an ongoing revolution.”

© Joe Lang

Much of Lang’s work starts with a chance encounter; “fleeting yet significant moments,” as he puts it. His photography has taken him across America, India and Vietnam during which he has captured an eclectic mix of individuals. “I enjoy documenting such a broad spectrum and discovering people’s similarities and differences,” he explains. “From people distilling alcohol in a remote village near Kon Tum, Vietnam, to couples at sponsored mass Hindu weddings in India”.

Lang’s portrait of Roxy at Margate Pride was only the beginning. In 2018, he submitted the image to Portrait of Britain and it won. “Portrait of Britain was an opportunity to share some of the wonderful characters I have met, through my practice, with the world; it was a chance to get my work seen and judged by a panel of experts.” Being selected for the award inspired Lang to get back in touch with Roxy and to extend the single portrait of her into a series. “This is not something that I often have the opportunity to do,” he explains, “but, given that the portrait had the success that it did with PoB, I thought I should work to evolve it”. Lang has since established a relationship with Roxy that has developed beyond photographer and subject; the pair are now good friends, which “is one rewarding outcome”.

© Joe Lang

Being selected for PoB marked a turning point for Lang. It encouraged the photographer to reflect on his work both aesthetically and conceptually. “I have been considering the way that I approach people and if, and how, this affects the photograph,” he says. He stresses the importance of the award for diversifying our perspectives more broadly too: “Britain is a complex place and we can become sheltered in our own familiarities. Portrait of Britain provides an important, contemporary snapshot of life across the country. It is not only fascinating to witness this now, but it will also exist as a great archive in the future.”

Future generations will look to Portrait of Britain 2019 to see the face of the nation in a historic moment. What will it look like? There are less than 48 hours to apply – submit your work today!

© Joe Lang