Canta magazine (the University of Canterbury Student Association magazine) did and article about me!
Iain Fergusson – Nightlife Photographer
by Sebastian Boyle
IT’S 11:15 ON A SATURDAY NIGHT, AND ALREADY IAIN FERGUSSON IS SURROUNDED BY A GAGGLE OF YOUNG WOMEN. They’re calling out his name, insistent, clamouring for his attention – and to give him their contact details. Iain is perhaps not the type of guy you might normally expect to attract such attention. Amiable, undoubtedly, with a quick smile and friendly eyes; but not the conventional model-type or superficial lothario that might usually draw the Shooters-bound crowds. But of course, it’s not that sort of thing that has so enraptured the group around him. It’s his art. Iain Fergusson is a photographer, a street photographer, and in just over three years, he’s taken over 26,500 photos of people enjoying the Christchurch nightlife. And he’s done it all for free.
Iain’s routine has become well – known to many of the central city regulars. You’ll find him on the corner of Manchester and Cashel streets most Thursday and Saturday nights. There’s no sign to announce him; no flashy ad or loudspeaker; just an amiable 33—year old man with camera and flash in hand. And having been out most weeks since December 2006, it is indeed a bit of a routine.
Here’s how it usually works. The group approaches, usually with one extrovert who rallies the others for a photo. (“Some see me from across the road, yell my name, then run into traffic — not too often, but every so often.”) Iain skilfully shepherds them into an appropriate arrangement, raises the camera to his eye with one hand, flash held aloft with the other, and click: the shot is taken. He spins the camera around for their approval, then, in a well-practised manner, whips a notebook out of his back pocket, produces a pen, and asks the subjects for their email address. He records most of them himself, but some people will elect to scrawl their own.
“I’ll go on to take a photo of the next people while they’re writing away,” he says, “and then you look back and — oh, crap. That’s a young person’s handwriting. I do my best, but it’s not a robust system.”
“Sometimes people will come up later on and say ‘I never got those photos!’ Inevitably, after I explain it to them, they’ll admit ‘Yyyyeah. .. I was probably drunk.’”
This part of proceedings is all over within the space of a minute. But the process doesn’t end on the street that night. Iain will return home, back up the photos on his computer, then, the next day, crop, correct, compress, and email the photos off to the eagerly-awaiting masses.
It can all take several hours to complete, but his fans appreciate the effort. And fans he indeed has. His Facebook fan page numbers about 450 members, and his Saturday nights are filled with adoring cries of”lain! Iain! Can we get a photo?” His regulars know where he’ll be, and have made him an integral part of their town rituals.
“We know exactly where to go,” says one of his many regulars, Jess.
“We’ll go to him on his corner just to get our photo taken. It makes a good night even better.”
In fact, some claim that Iain is the only reason they choose to come into town some evenings. The man himself is sceptical.
“I don’t buy it completely. No one comes into town to get a photo taken then go home again.”
“People will come up to me and say ‘You’re great! You’re bloody great then blink for a moment and ask ‘What are you doing with a camera?’ They’ve had a few drinks, and might be a little more enthusiastic about what they’re saying than they would be otherwise.”
“But it is cool,” he allows.
Megan, another regular, gushes about his skill. “He takes the best photos ever! And he’s always pronto — he’ll send them to you straight away,” she explains.
“And he’s real reliable, you know he’ll| be here on the corner,” her friend
“When we go out, I’m like, ’oh, well, we’ll just get an lain picture first.”’
“She’s obsessed! She drags me.”
“He’s the boss!”
“He’s on my Facebook?
“We’re all friends with him on Facebook.”
“They always come out real good, like, real professional.”
Having successfully crossed the “Iain picture” task off their list, they’re back off to enjoy their Saturday night. Iain tucks his notebook away with a chuckle.
“That’s probably the most articulate response you’ll get tonight.”
The customers get a little more demanding at midnight. “It’s not good enough, it’s not good enough,”a young gentleman repeats, critiquing a shot where he hasn’t quite pulled off the look he intended.
But a moment later, he’s happy with a second photo. “Put it up on Facebook and tag the shit out of it!”
And it’s Facebook where most of the photos taken tonight will end up, or Bebo, or the occasional misbegotten MySpace. The social media phenomenon has provided a complementary outlet for Iain’s endeavour.
“I can only speculate what would happen if people weren’t able to share their photos as much,” Iain offers. “I think they’d still like it, but word wouldn’t have spread as much.”
“It’s fortuitous people can share them, and word can spread. Initially, I didn’t put my name on the bottom of the photo, because I liked the idea that it was kind of a secret thing.”
Iain later relented, his name now adorning his already – recognisable work. “It’s not quite as ‘secret’ as it was, but it’s mostly still word of mouth. I like the fact there’s a little bit of uncertainty about it. That it’s not blatantly marketed. It’s still something where people are discovering something. And they’re kind of rewarded for asking me.”
And ask they will. “What are you taking photos of?”a passing man queries.
“Anyone who wants to have their picture taken,” lain responds.
Which is really Iain’s work in a nutshell. Although he has deemed it ‘The Free Photo Project’ online, he isn’t too eager put much more of a definition on what he does.
“I’ve had long conversations trying to nail down exactly what it is,” he sighs, “because it’s not photography, as such — the photographs are just kind of a by-product of something.”
“In some ways it’s ‘street theatre,’ because there’s a kind of performance that’s going on. It creates a bit of spectacle. It’s not a huge thing, but there’s a lot of little things going on. But you could see it as kind of a social experiment as well. What happens when I go out on the street with my camera?”
“It has a whole bunch of elements to it — not through design — but just because it does… ”
He’s no closer to finding that elusive encapsulating description.”It’s just something that happens,” he concludes.
Equally, the project didn’t come about by design. Like many great endeavours, Iain’s was instigated by what was largely a spur-of-the-moment decision.
“I think it was a Thursday evening. I was at home, and I was kind of bored. I remember thinking I can I
either be bored at home, or I can go into town and be bored there. The worst case scenario is I’m going to be bored, but if I’m in town, something might happen.”
Something did happen. Iain was approached by passers-by to take their photos. He obliged. One of the people he photographed was a Dutch tourist, whom Iain ran into again when he returned to town another night.
“She said she’d like to be sent her photos. She sent me a text message with her email, and then I sent her the photos, and that was it. I kind of realised ‘Okay. People are more likely to want to get their photo taken if they’re sent it.”‘
Iain’s regular process was established not too long afterward.
“I took a notebook in and started recording people’s emails, and it went from there. It wasn’t really a plan, it just kind of happened.”
A slightly bewildered young woman is Shooters-bound; Ilam Villages keycard in hand, a travel mug clutched in the other. She gestures with the latter. “Do you guys want a present?”
Finding no takers, she sets it down in a secluded nook. “I’ll come back for it tomorrow?
She starts off, pauses, and looks back with an expression of infinite wistfulness. .. I won’t be getting that one back…”
The nature of Iain’s work has given him a unique perspective on the city.
“I’m in the interesting position of being an observer of what’s going on. People who are out on the town aren’t actually paying attention to what’s going on around them; they’re more interested in what they’re doing. The police and bouncers’ perspective is often the perspective you read about — but those are the people whose job it is to look for trouble.
So obviously they’re biased to seeing trouble,” he argues.
But what of Christchurch’s reputation as a violent city? What of the stories of random attacks and other nefarious goings-on?
“These stories are from people who don’t go into town,” Iain pronounces with a bemused smile.”I’ve had two incidents in the three years I’ve been going out in which I’ve felt a bit… on edge.”
“One was a guy who was obviously drunk and had some beef with the paparazzi — and I had a camera.
He wasn’t making any sense, because he upset with me and trying to say something about
Stephen Hawking. I couldn’t make much sense of it, and didn’t try to exacerbate the situation.”
“The other time I was walking home down Manchester St. I think it was a pimp. He must have thought I took his photo. He got up in my face, and I just kept repeating ‘I didn’t take your photo!’ Again, I didn’t escalate the situation.”
“There’s a routine about fights. Most blow off at the bravado stage, where people are saying ‘What are you going to do? Come over here and fight me!,’ and the other says, ’No, you come over here!’ It only occasionally blows up, but I don’t feel threatened by that sort of stuff, because that’s happening over there with them alone. If you’re diplomatic, and you stay calm, and you don’t call them an idiot, you’re fine.”
A girl of about eighteen, having just had her photo taken, asks Iain if he takes tips. He shakes his head politely, no. She insists. He remains adamant. She wanders off on to the rest of her night, a little surprised and bemused about the whole thing.
Iain’s refusal to take payment is indeed one of the most unique things about his work. In a
time when everything is commoditised, coming across someone providing a completely free and unsubsidised service is rare. But for Iain, it’s central to what he does.
“It wouldn’t work if I charged? he declares. “I might get some money out of it, but it would ruin it. It would completely change the dynamic. I’d be getting paid to do a job.”
“And I like the fact that I’m not charging in that it’s. .. pure, I suppose. It’s kind of a reaction to the commercialisation we see around us. That might sound like I’m some kind of activist – but it’s really just me reconciling it with myself.”
“And I think there are some magical and significant moments that come out of it that
would otherwise get lost if people paid for it. A person’s last night with their friends before they go overseas. A photo of a dad and his son out on the town together — you know how hard it is to get family photos. All these little significant things that happen every so often wouldn’t be so significant — they’d be a transaction.”
One memory sticks in his mind particularly.
“There was a girl who was killed in a car accident down Fendalton Rd. I’d taken a number of photos of her on a few weekends. About a month after the accident, her boyfriend came up and told me they’d used some of my photos at the funeral.”
“The significance and importance of that… it’s one little speck of importance and significance, but had she paid me for the photos, it would have only been another transaction?
Having appraised a photo that meets her exacting specifications, another girl wanders off with a wave.
“See ya next time.” Iain’s already faced with the next
9F0up, but still has time for A response. “See ya.”
He probably will – but not tonight. It’s 1am on a Sunday morning, and Iain’s about to call it a night – a little earlier than ususal.
But he’ll be out again next week, and the next, for the foreseeable future.
“I’ll stop doing it when I stop enjoying it.”
He reflects for a moment. “It has become a bit more routine. .. it’s not as exciting as it was to began with. But it’s enjoyable in a different way.”
“For me, it’s a big part of my life. I’m out every week. But if I take a step back and observe it. .. I’m just going out and taking photos of drunk people. To me it feels significant, but maybe it’s not in the grand scheme of things. It’s the same way a parent thinks their child is the greatest thing in the world, when if they actually take a step back, they’re just one in the crowd.”
For now though, it seems that most people are firmly in the”significant” camp – even finding a chance to get home is a challenge. Just as Iain’s about to disappear for the night, a voice calls out from a nearby bar: “lain!”Another regular customer, another photo. Another fitting end to another night chronicling the night-time goings-on of the city around us.