“I can’t have my photo taken with her. I can’t even be seen with her. We’re having an affair and her fella would kill me.”
I was out shooting people on the streets of Belfast. But in the contemporary sense of the word – armed was I only with camera. The idea was to ask people to stare straight into that camera for 60 seconds, while I filmed them.
The antidote to today’s instant ‘selfie’ method of taking portraits. ‘The Belfies‘, if you will…
When you’re talking about a minute, faces get tired. Smiles start to drop. But nobody scowled. It was all for the art. But sixty seconds seemed a bit excessive. Everyone involved was getting awkward.
Then the singer-songwriter Roesy contacted me. A fellow Birr Bog-Merchant, we’ve known each other years. Also a painter, we’ve done art shows together during Vintage Week in Birr. He consistently outsold me in our native town. Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on…
So after talking to my contemporary about a collaboration, I went out on the streets to get more “Belfies” for a music video for a track from his forthcoming album ‘Wolf Counsel’. This time around it was cold, and the Christmas market in the background at City Hall was ruining all my shots. Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on…
And just like the two nights I spent on the streets of Dublin sleeping rough a few months ago, I knew I had to bring some hardware. So like the last time, I bought twenty fags I’d no interest in smoking. Those essential ice-breakers that worked so well down on the cracked pavements of the capital.
Peddling ‘fegs’, as they call them up here. But I’m not pushing the benefits of respertory illness on anyone. Non-smokers – and children who haven’t decided yet – were obviously exempt. Ironically, a half-naked rugby team sung Christmas carols for a cancer charity behind me, as I filmed my ‘feg’ smokers in action.
As an unexpected result, the first cut of the music video looked like some form of pro-cigarette campaign. Not exactly what I was after. So I had to go out on the streets again.
Lurking around in the Christmas cold, camera and tripod at the ready. Waiting to find another victim to shoot. The obvious target was buskers. But Belfast is home to a breed of busking we don’t see quite as much of down south of the border.
Amped-up with the rest of the strummers and the drummers are a particularly persistent group of buskers. Out on those streets, armed to the teeth with leaflets and optimism. Busking the benefits of Jesus to anyone who’ll listen.
Usually I give them a good run-out – a pre-season practice match to exercise their miraculous patter on a potential convert. But this time I wasn’t biting. I wanted to avoid any sort of buskers – religious or otherwise – seen as this was a music video.
Until I saw an elderly American Evangelist I just couldn’t ignore.
This guy was something special. This guy was carrying a massive metal crucifix over his shoulder. With a little wheel on the end of its base, so it wouldn’t drag along the road as he lugged it around. Like those wheels you see on posh amputee dogs, when they’ve got no back legs.
He told me he’s been traveling across the world with this cross for the last 35 years. Spreading the good word. He had a leaflet, with pictures of himself – everywhere from the Soviet Union to El Salvador. Just him, and his cross. And his bank details. Mastercard or Visa, he was equal opportunities. Someone has to fund his global travel. And Jesus was never known for booking flights.
So after reading his leaflet, I asked him could I have a go on his cross. At first he wasn’t too keen, but my persistence convinced him. So he got out from underneath it, and placed it down on upon my shoulders. It was hollow and light-weight. For a crucifix….
I felt he was cheating a bit, between the dog-wheel and the light-weight frame. I told him I expected it to be heavier. He said it used to be heavier, but he had to change it, now he was over sixty. It reminded me of the bit in Only Fools and Horses, where Trigger gets an award from the council for using the same road sweeping-brush for twenty years. Then Trigger reveals that same brush has had eight new handles, and twelve new heads.
But Jesus or no Jesus, I was still short a few ‘Belfies’ for Roesy. So I went back out shooting people on the streets of Belfast. It was Black Friday, and people were getting arrested for boxing the heads off each other in supermarkets. The Peelers were all tooled-up with armed response units on the Ormeau Road. I never knew people took shopping so seriously.
The significance of Roesy’s song’s title only struck me while I was out there on those cold Belfast streets. His song is called ‘Learning to Crawl’, and maybe that’s what’s happening here now in this city. ‘The Belfies’ have been on their knees for forty years of chaos – the likes of which Roesy and I will never understand – coming from our cosy Vintage Week world of Midlands Ireland.
I keep wondering how the same project would’ve worked out in Dublin, where the Hipsters have no such sense of perspective to remove them from their own holes for a minute to the time for a quick laugh at themselves.
Because of all the people on the streets of Belfast I approached, only a few turned me down.
Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on. And to me, that’s what they’ve done here too, as far as my experiences shooting people on the street goes.