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What Does Your Soul Like? Photography and the City

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

Mahayana Buddhism teaches of six realms of corporeal existence, all of which hold their own vices. The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, adjacent to Hell, holds those consumed by their desires. They traverse barren landscapes, cold, starving and untouched. The consuming need for substance is an Uroboros tragedy, a snake eating its own tail: one can only be ‘full’ once they accept the wisdom of emptiness. Don’t worry, this isn’t about me trying to convert one to Buddhism to fix depression, or preach about my art. Actually, it has a happy ending.

Apart from my love of bleak, Eastern philosophical openings, I also love Photography. It was one of the first artistic pursuits that I felt an achievement in and quickly became a hobby, then an obsession. In recent years, especially since university, it has become a diary, a letter and a mirror. Through my patron saints (Martin Parr, Daidō Moriyama, Nan Goldin, to name a few), I became obsessed with street photography. The medium achieves such theatrical clarity and reveals how the mundane holds the best stories. I would dream from my West Yorkshire hometown of walking through a brightly lit, yet tragic, city, capturing pedestrian ghosts as they lived their stories for me.

Then exactly that happened. I was accepted into the Courtauld Institute of Art, moved to the very heart of this new and exciting city, and had every chance to begin doing what I thought would come naturally. Yet depression has a fascinating way of planting seeds of self-doubt, inadequacy and isolation. For years I never saw my work as good, but it took even longer to realise that it doesn’t matter.

When I was younger, sleep always helped. I don’t have to think if I’m dreaming. Through being alone and making art, I replaced this. Photography became a dream.

Moving to the centre of London gave me more independence than ever before and changed my life drastically. Although life was going well, thanks to amazing friends; this insipid, consuming hollowness was still there, giving me sleepless nights and causing periods of numbness. Over the years I have found ways to tame this ‘black dog’, my favourite being walking at night. You know that feeling when you walk somewhere you know really well, but at something like 4am? It’s the same but upside down, stillness injected into the busy familiar. Just the sounds of birds, the occasional taxi, the wind in the trees. It calms me. My world feels still. London became my subject, such beautiful and characterful models line streets of Holborn, Soho and the Strand. Solitude, once my poison, had become my medicine.

Through these walks with oneself, I could regain something lost, I could feel alive in the stillness. A being unto oneself, my camera capturing my new world. These walks became more and more the regular for me. My solitude, my silence, my secret. Come the morning I would be me again, with my friends, my studies and my postcards from the far way world of 4am.

The city can be a lonely place. The loneliness came as an involuntary state, but I found a way to make the black dog man’s best friend. Authenticity came from a lack of performance, no need to force a smile. I was an island unto myself, the strings holding me not severed but loosened. Subjects of my work rarely involve people but tend to create form out of emptiness, presence out of nothingness. Ghost Photography. I was no longer starving; I had found peace in the absent.

Really, night photography and voluntary isolation didn’t fix my depression. Hell, it didn’t even make me a better photographer. But it gave me something I needed. Not necessarily control, or talent, or purpose. It gave me something that was mine, not meant for the world. I find that the purposeless can sometimes hold the most purpose. I still go on these walks, still take this picture, but it’s different now. The peace doesn’t leave as I wake up. I take photos all day long.

All photographs by Isaac Huxtable (@solo_graph)

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