Tag Archives: Christophe Agou

Assignment 2 – Anything You Can Do


The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits.

This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio).

You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think of how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.

One of the possibilities I thought about for assignment 2 was to take images of people within their own house, using artificial lighting. My final choice of subject involves this. The room has become the studio. This contrasts with my earlier images for this section which were almost all taken outside with natural light.


I looked at several photographers portrait work for this including Martin Parr, Christophe Agou, Paul Graham, and Walker Evans and also researched work done taking images of people with disabilities such as Louis Quail  in ‘Big Brother’,  Siân Davey with her work on her Down Syndrome daughter in ‘Alice’, Polly Bradon’s work with the learning disabled and people with ASD  in  ‘Out of the Shadows ‘  and ‘Great Interactions’ and Lesley McIntyre’s photoessay on the life of her daughter ‘The Time of Her Life’.  I also looked at Diane Arbus’s somewhat controversial work where she took images in a home for learning disabled people (Diane Arbus).  There is a harrowing film series done by David Hevey on disability which uses the contrasting images of then and now, to tell a part of the story about disability: see David Hevey – The Disabled Century for more information.

Taking pictures of people who are aware of you is discussed further in Project 2 – The aware and Project 2 – The Aware – 2. Most of the work that I found about people with disabilities either involved people with a learning disability, severe mental health problems, or severe physical difficulties.

Background Information:

This series is about a couple who both have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a condition (I refuse to call it a disability) that I have worked with for many years and, if I have learned anything, I have learned that the people with ASD and their families are not defined by the label. Each person’s story is different, each family’s story is unique, just as for any other person and any other family. To tell the story properly takes time, a lifetime, both yours and theirs. This is just a snapshot.


For this series I took images of a couple with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and their young child. Janey and Rich were kind enough to invite me into their home and give me permission to use the images.  Unlike most of the work on people with disabilities looked at above neither of them has a learning disability.  Janey is an author, rarely seen without a pencil and a notebook, and Rich works with computers. Their motto is ‘Anything you can do we can do too’ – although, as Janey went on to explain, that does not include working at a busy supermarket till ( but who would really want to do that from choice).


  • I met Janey and Rich in their home. It was the first time I had met Rich, so he was naturally somewhat guarded with me, although eventually relaxed. We spent some time talking and then I simply started taking pictures of their interactions with each other, me and their baby. One of the difficulties people with ASD have is with eye contact, especially with strangers and this is evident in all the images.
  • I used a combination of natural light, the artificial light in their flat and a flash unit.
  • I visualised these images from the start in black and white, partly because it echoed much of the earlier work I had seen and partly because it gives a softer light and timeless feel to the images.


This was a fascinating piece of work to do. It fits within a much longer work I am planning about the lives of people with ASD and that of their families. I am planning to mainly concentrate on work with adults with ASD as little has been done photographically with this group.

The difficulties were:

  • Working inside with limited light
  • Allowing enough time for the family to relax without being there so long that I risked overwhelming them

The positive aspects:

  • Building a relationship
  • Exploring a new (to me) type of way of working



Learning points:

  • Be confident that you can do things
  • Relax and the subjects will also relax
  • Take enough images to allow for problems with the light

With sincere thanks to Janey and Rich.

Reference list:

Arbus, D. et al. (1978) Diane Arbus. London: Gordon Fraser Gallery.

Braden, P. (2016) Great interactions : life with learning disabilities and autism. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Bradon, P. and Williams, S. (2018) Out of the Shadows. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Hevey, D. (s.d.) Viewing. At: http://davidhevey.com/viewing/ (Accessed on 6 April 2020)

Mcintyre, L. (2004) The time of her life. London: Jonathan Cape.

Quail, L. (2018) Big brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Siân Davey (2015) Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.

Project 2 – The aware

With the exception of candid street photography all images of people involve some degree of awareness on the part of the subject. However, the degree of involvement does vary. It can be divided into 3 main types:

  1. The subject is having their portrait taken on one occasion either as:
    1. A deliberate choice on the part of the subject such as a formal portrait
    2. A choice on the part of the photographer such as a requested photograph of a stranger in the street. Examples of these are the June Street series by Daniel Meadows and the work done by Tom Wood see:  Project 1 – The unaware – 2 where he became the Photie Man.
  2. An ongoing portrait series of a person or a group of people either taken over several days or even years where the subject, although known to the photographer, is not emotionally involved. An example is the series in the face of silence (Agou, 2011) by Christophe Agou.
  3. An ongoing series of portraits of someone who is well known to the photographer such as family or a close friend. Examples here are Mother (Graham, 2019) by Paul Graham and Big Brother (Quail, 2018) by Louis Quail and the photographs of his wife Eleanor by Harry Callahan.

Another example of type 3 is Looking for Alice by Siân Davey in which she tells the story of the life of her daughter, Alice, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and the impact this has on the family’s life. In the foreword she says ‘the process of photographing this work has helped me shine a light on why I struggled to love Alice, which was essentially fear and uncertainty …. she is now in the middle of everything that we do as a family and is loved unconditionally’ (Davey, 2015).  Davey went on to produce a book of images about her older daughter, Martha, at her request (Davey, 2019). She talks at length about her life and motivation for taking these images in a podcast  A Small Voice – Siân Davey.

These categories can become blurred, especially the latter two, when a series continues over several years. This is very noticeable in the work for every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness (Germain and Snelling, 2014) by Julian Germain, where he started off with an unknown subject Mr Snelling, who he got to know very well over several years, with the images becoming more intimate over time. Another example of the blurring between a subject and a friend occurs in Nina Berman’s book An Autobiography of Miss Wish (Berman and Stevens, 2017) in which she initially meets a stranger, a drug addict and a prostitute on the street and over many years develops a friendship that includes housing her for a time and being her sponsor. The final book is a collaboration between Berman and Miss Wish (Kimberly Stevens) and includes both photographs, copies of her medical documentation and drawings done by Stevens.

The skills needed for all portraits of aware subjects include (in no particular order):

  • The ability to make a connection and read the person and therefore show their feelings
  • Real engagement to build trust – possibly very rapidly in a one-off shoot
  • The need to keep separate your emotion and the subjects (they may be the same – or very different) – and the photo will depend on how you interpret them
  • Patience
  • The ability to think about the whole image, not just the person. Both the content and the framing are important.
  • The need to choose between either being an observer (neutral) or a participant (a director) – both can work well but probably not in the same image
  • Consider lighting – inside or outside, natural or flash, soft or hard – what will show what you need?
  • Get permission which may be explicit (in writing) or implicit (the person sees you pointing the camera at them and agrees by not turning away)

A useful reference book which discusses these points is on the Portrait and the Moment by Mary Ellen Mark (Mark, 2015).


Agou, C. (2011). In the face of silence. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Berman, N. and Stevens, K. (2017). An Autobiography of Miss Wish. Heidelberg: Kehrer.

Davey, S. (2015). Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.

Davey, S. (2019). Martha. Hertfordshire: Trolleybooks.

Davey, S. and Smith, B. (2017). Siân Davey. [online] A Small Voice. Available at: https://bensmithphoto.com/asmallvoice/sian-davey [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].

Germain, J. and Snelling, C. (2014). For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness: portrait of an elderly gentleman. London: Mack.

Graham, P. (2019). Mother. S.L.: Mack.

Mark, M.E. (2015). on the portrait and the moment. New York Aperture.

Quail, L. (2018). Big Brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.




Project 1 – The Unaware 1

Taking portraits of people who are unaware of you needs a certainly needs a degree of stealth and a place where there are plenty of people who are engaged in their own thoughts. One of the commonest places for this to be done is on public transport. If you google ‘images of the underground in London’ it becomes obvious that this is a very common place for photographers to take pictures. Many of these are of the underground architecture, others are of general crowd scenes and yet more are portraits, usually taken without the knowledge of the people being photographed, although some are obviously posing for the camera.

The genre probably started with the subway images of Walker Evans, although similar portraits were also taken by Helen Levitt, who was his apprentice, at much the same time. The two of them often went out together as Evans thought that people were less likely to see him taking photos if he was with someone else. Levitt revisited the subject much later in 1978 taking a range of images of similar scenes, this time against a background of graffiti (Silverman, 2017). They can be seen in Manhattan Transit: The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt.

Helen Levitt
© Helen Levitt

Stefan Rousseau, a London photographer also took images on the London Underground. There is a recent photoessay available on this in which he says ‘Suddenly I became aware of a new world of phone-obsessed, sleep-deprived, makeup-wielding commuters so absorbed in their own world that I felt I had to photograph them. I’m astonished by the skill of the women who are able to apply their makeup while hurtling through tunnels and those who can watch last night’s TV standing up in the smallest of spaces’ (Rousseau, 2019). The whole essay can be accessed at:


Stefan Rousseau
© Stefan Rousseau

Lukas Kuzma is another photographer who has taken pictures on the London Underground in the series Transit (Kuzma, 2015) in which he shows a mixture of images of people, some aware of him, others clearly unaware. Some of his images are amusing, some fascinating, others almost cruel.  Some of his images can be seen on Behance.

Lukas Kuzma
© Lukas Kuzma

For other photographers who work on images taken on public transport see:  Martin Parr Christophe Agou and Walker Evans

Edited 04/11/19:

I have just come across another photographer who worked extensively on the London Underground in the 1970’s. Mike Goldsmith has just produced a book London Underground 1970 – 1980 which shows images from a slightly earlier underground scene, although the people have similar world-weary expressions.  The pictures can be seen at:


© Mike Goldwater – Northern Line 1975

Given the number of articles and relevant photographers I have found in a fairly short exploration of this topic, I suspect that a whole PhD could be written on it.

Reference list

Candid moments on the London Underground. (2019). BBC News. [online] 4 Nov. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-50261478  [Accessed 04 Nov. 2019].

Kuzma, L. (2015). Transit. [online] Behance. Available at: https://www.behance.net/gallery/23661963/Transit [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Levitt, H., Campany, D., Hoshino, M. and Zander, T. (2017). Helen Levitt – Manhattan Transit. Köln Galerie Thomas Zander Köln Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther König.

Rousseau, S. (2019). Riding the tube – a photo essay by Stefan Rousseau. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/29/riding-the-tube-a-photo-essay-by-stefan-rousseau [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Silverman, R. (2017). The Subway Portraits of Helen Levitt. [online] Lens Blog NY Times. Available at: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/the-subway-portraits-of-helen-levitt/ [Accessed 20 Aug. 2019].




Christophe Agou

© Christope Agou – from -in the face of silence

Christophe Agou (1969 – 2015) was a French photographer who lived in New York and, like Walker Evans, took a series of images of the New York subway – Life Below (Agou, 2004). He said ‘Trust your heart and open your eyes’ and ‘There is a certain honesty underground, a certain truth. The sense of enclosure is sometimes oppressive, but I love the feeling of the pulse beneath the city’ (Hogarth and McLaren, 2010). Agou worked in both black and white and colour, across the city of New York and in the countryside of the Forez hills in France. In the  New York subway he took mainly images of people who were unaware of him ‘an intimate rendezvous with people in a meditative state from every conceivable walk (Agou, 2011) while for the work in Forez, published as in the face of silence (Agou, 2011 a) he spent time getting the know the community of farmers over eight years. As well as a a photographer Agou was a gifted writer. His website describes his interactions with the people he photographed using lyrical prose ‘… underneath the wooded volcanoes, the furrows of poor earth, the thick fog, the scent of damp clover, the cry of the crows, the entanglement of the forest after a storm, the peace in the heart of the vines, the paths dug up into ruts, the fields lying fallow, the snow swept away by the north wind, the mysteries of the night, the silence… this reality inspires me’ Agou, 2017).

While Agou used the underground as a way of exploring people’s emotions, he was not intrusive. Although he did not always ask about taking the images, he would engage with the people involved and, unlike Evans, he did not hide his camera. However, his images in this series do act as an updated view of the subway.  I find some of his other images, from in the face of silence more revealing. The time he spent with the farmers has allowed a more intimate view, the details are both heart-warming (a cat and a cup) and heart breaking (a picture of Christ under a pipe in a wall).  He has filmed ‘their life as it is’ – with details, but no sentimentality.

Reference list

Agou, C. (2004). Life Below: the New York City subway. New York: Quantuck Lane Press.

Agou, C. (2011a). books | christophe agou. [online] Christopheagou.com. Available at: http://christopheagou.com/books/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Agou, C. (2011b). In the face of silence. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.

Agou, C. (2017). face au silence (in the face of silence) | christophe agou. [online] Christopheagou.com. Available at: http://christopheagou.com/face-au-silence/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Howarth, S. and Mclaren, S. (2010). Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.