Sunday, 14 June 2015

NO EXPECTATIONS by Erika Szostak

NO EXPECTATIONS by Erika Szostak

I came across Erika's work in Absolute magazine and then looked up her work on her website and, immediately, I was taken by her fresh and lively shots which to me indicated that this was a fresh and lively imagination at work. I wrote to her and she responded very positively, saying that she had heard of "Over the Hill" and knew some of the other Brighton-based photographers who had already partaken in the project. She also said that she had thought of an idea already for the shoot! We arranged to meet in the Red Roaster in Kemptown and there we discussed her idea over a coffee and her newish baby who she had brought with her. The idea was for me to pose as Mr Havisham, the male equivalent of the character from Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" but in a more modern setting and she thought maybe a modern hotel room would be suitable. Now, this was a new one on me because, so far, I had not posed as someone else; all the photographs had some real connection with who I really am - I was not playing a part. However, Erika's enthusiasm for the concept was such that I felt it was better to go with it than not. As with my reaction to seeing her portfolio, I was persuaded by her vitality and energy to stick with it and go along for the ride.

After a long period of broken correspondence, we finally set a date for the shoot which now was to take place in her sitting room at home and would not be anywhere as near as ambitious as we had originally discussed which in some ways allayed my fears about it looking too artificial as far as my character was concerned. Erika had arranged for Elloise India Willett to come along to do the hair and make-up - I had worked with Elloise before and we had had a lot of fun so this boded well. However, I was no prepared for what came next.

I arrived at Erika's house and she explained that her partner was no at all well and therefore he was not able to look after her toddler, Sebastian (the baby from the cafe) and Oliver, her very young, very energetic, very loud but utterly charming eldest son. The sitting room was quite small (and seemed much smaller once it was filled by Erika, me, Elloise and two small kids) but we set ourselves up in there and Elloise set to work on my hair and beard and displayed remarkable calmness in the midst of a whirlwind of noise and activity. Finally, it was done and Erika set herself up to shoot. It was then that everything clicked and I am not just talking shutters here. Erika settled herself, Elloise added a few dabs here and there and I "became" Mr Havisham. For the most part, I sat on a chair and slowly sank into despondency and loss, thinking of the rare occasions on which I had felt low since being diagnosed. I remembered the times when I felt like an old man but looked into the mirror and slapped my face and told myself to stop it. I could have let myself go after my diagnosis but I didn't, helped by this wonderful project and all the great people I had met along the way. Then I was snapped out of my reverie by Erika announcing that that was it. The end of the shoot. By then, her own enthusiasm had taken over and I recall one moment when she was sitting on the floor with her legs stretched out wide, smiling and clicking away excitedly but she had got what she was looking for in incredibly adverse circumstances.

There was another long break before she suggested we meet to look at the photographs together. They were good and we chose one which we both liked and she said that she would work on that one. I thought about it on the bus home and wrote to her suggesting that maybe the addition of some petals on the floor and some cobwebs would get us nearer to her original notion. She had clearly been thinking along the same lines and agreed. Well, eventually, almost 15 months after the shoot, I received this. Erika had set the original image into her beautiful photograph of the abandoned Hellingly Asylum which has since been demolished. It is so different from anything I have ever done before and I love it because, bit by bit, it has slowly emerged from a real collaboration of Erika's skill as a photographer, my search for a reality, Elloise's brilliant make-up and the Dade Freeman's clever retouching.

"Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken but - I hope - into a better shape"

                                                                  - Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


Photography & production: Erika Szostak
Retoucher: Dade Freeman

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