INTERVIEW: Photographer Alan Harniess on his ‘One Family’ portrait exhibition
Whether amateur or professionals, the people who make up the photography community are our eyes to the world.
They inspire and amaze us. They put the world in a broader context for us to see, in some sense they show what it means when they say “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
I met Alan Harniess in the summer of 2022 at Jamaica Independence Day celebrations at Aston Hall. When we spoke Alan told me he was a photographer who takes photographs of “random strangers”, and said he would love to have an exhibition one day.
So it was no surprise to me when he more recently got in touch to let me know he was having an exhibition at the Gunmakers Arms in Birmingham city centre.
I decided to pay him a visit at the venue. When I finally got to the pub with Alan’s direction, there were a lot of people there having a drink in a celebratory mood, and I later discovered there was a beer festival in the adjoining room.
I went to the space where Alan’s beautiful pictures were being displayed across the large walls of the pub.
I also found Alan. As he showed me around, we talked about the framed photographs. Although I could not stay as long as I would’ve liked, he found time to give me a bit of an insight into his work.
I asked Alan about his photography and what inspired him, a self-proclaimed novice, to take up the hobby.
Tell me more about yourself…
I’m Alan Harniess, a retired music teacher and amateur photographer from Sutton Coldfield. I tend to only take photographs when on holiday or somewhere special, although I did train as a portrait & wedding photographer back in 2000/2001 but I never took it up professionally, I continued in teaching.
What inspired you to take up photography?
In 2017, I joined a photography group on Flickr called 100 Strangers. There are many photographers in this group which continues to this day with some people going on to photograph another 100 – and another!
It’s quite addictive. The idea is to challenge oneself to approach strangers in the street and ask if you can take their portrait; ideally you need an interesting stranger, good lighting, a suitable background and, most difficult of all, the courage to approach them in the first place! Sometimes I would return home not having had the nerve to take any photos!
This current project is similar but with the added theme of racial harmony. I had noticed more and more how many couples or groups of friends were from different ethnic origins and just ‘getting on’ and, at the same time, despaired at the media coverage of race relations which always seemed to concentrate on the negative side (of course this partly coincided with the George Floyd tragedy which exacerbated things).
Who are these people in the photographs, and why did you choose them?
Apart from one couple, who are musicians and ex-pupils of me and my wife, all the other couples or groups are strangers, and most portraits were taken within a short time, around 10 minutes maximum.
When approaching people I made it very clear from the start that this was my message and that the photos would be exhibited.
I was quite prepared for people to say that they had encountered difficulties in their relationships – e.g. with other friends or family members. I’m sure some probably had but no-one felt it necessary to mention and, given the choice, I wanted to remain as apolitical as possible.
A couple of black guys who chose not to be photographed did, however, sit down with me in pubs and were very much of the opinion that, whilst not denying problems, there is a danger of over-exaggerating difficulties of race in the UK.
Why do you call your project ‘One Family’?
It’s titled ‘One Family’ because I feel that, despite our different cultures, traditions etc., we all belong to the human race and have the potential at least to ‘get on’ with one another, whatever our racial origins.
There is a slow and gentle move towards integration which needs patience but needs to be recognised.
Which photographers inspire and inform your work?
I love the photos of people like Vanley Burke, Herbert Walters and Pogus Caesar, and don’t claim to be at their level of expertise but I feel that photos of a mix of races, in our cities in particular, are under-represented.
Where would you like your photography to take you and where would you display the exhibit next?
I would like the photos to be seen in as many places as possible because I think they give a positive message of slow but sure integration.
I am trying to make contacts in Birmingham and further afield and a friend has offered to help me set up a YouTube channel to further spread the message.
The exhibition was firstly in Highbury Theatre, Wylde Green throughout October, then in Direct Art gallery, Sutton Coldfield until February and at Gunmakers Arms during February. Now it’s looking for a new home.
You can view more of Alan Harniess’ photography here.