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Courtesy Harry F Conway
Courtesy Harry F Conway

This photo series questions surveillance in our city

Photographer Harry F Conway is ‘attacking’ pedestrians in central London in an attempt to wake us up to the possibility of an Orwellian society

Harry F Conway doesn’t want to give us pretty pictures. He wants to make us think. In his Stolen Souls photo series (soon-to-be exhibition), Conway, a native of London, uses his collection of photos shot on the streets around Soho, Chinatown and Oxford Street to highlight how surveillance cameras in the city observe us day and night. We are all being caught on camera constantly and Conway’s upcoming exhibition addresses this relentless recording of our images and actions. “I thought why not inject a bit of honesty into this practice of stealing pictures… so I walked around the busiest places in London past midnight and jumped out at people with a big camera and flash, letting them know I'd taken their photograph,” he explains.

Previously featured on Dazed, he comes to photography through a route less travelled. Having studied at Central St. Martins in London, Conway was also once a prolific graffiti writer. After being tracked down by the police, he was given a 12-month sentence at notorious west London prison, Wormwood Scrubs for his graffiti work. Upon release, he changed direction and headed for a photography BA at the London College of Communication. But his life as a graffiti writer has undoubtedly shaped the photo series – “I like to approach my photography as aggressively as I approached graff,” he says. Like the bold and invasive methods he applied to his previous work, the shocking technique used to take these photos draws attention to our lack of control over who records us anonymously, when and where. In advance of Stolen Souls opening later this week (22 April) at south London’s MMX Gallery, we caught up with the young artist and photographer to find out more about his work.

Can you explain the story behind this photo series?

Harry F Conway: Stolen Souls came from me watching my peers using their phones to take discreet pictures of strangers. Whether it was on a train or just in public, people would be taking pictures without permission and then sharing it on social media without the person’s knowledge; this often led to malicious comments online about said stranger. I felt there was such a degree of deceptiveness in this act. I wanted to do the same thing, but make sure the individual knew I’d stolen their face. I liked the idea that the stranger would now know their image had been taken, they could not stop or alter this act; but they now knew it had taken place.

Surveillance has become a hot topic for artists, what particularly drove you to highlight it? How did graff shape your thinking behind Stolen Souls?

Harry F Conway: What drove me to it? The police trying to kick down my door, tracking my Oyster card to see where I’d been, stealing my property, and detectives trying to intimidate my family and friends. All for a bit of paint on a wall...

My photography is a reflection of my life. Graff had to shape my future work; it was such a big part of my adolescence. I came out of prison for graff and the next day I was sitting in a tutorial for my first year at London College of Communication. It was pretty surreal. One day a cell, the next day an art school.

“I don’t trust anyone to have that much control over my liberty and the rest of society’s right to privacy. Orwell got it right” – Harry F Conway

Why do you think people are so ignorant to surveillance? Is it because we’re complicit and it’s become the norm? Or because people aren’t even aware of it?

Harry F Conway: People know it’s there, but I’m not sure the everyday person knows the full extent of surveillance in the UK, and especially London. The battery in your iPhone can’t be taken out so even when it’s turned off the phone is emitting a signal every few seconds to reveal your location. Now everyone’s moving to contactless cards, your journeys anywhere are recorded. That’s not even going into social media monitoring and CCTV, yet alone facial recognition software the police now use. In a couple of years we’ll have mini-drones in the skies monitoring our every move.

The sad thing for me is this argument that we shouldn’t worry as “if you don’t have anything to hide then you shouldn’t care”. This is unsettling as it seems the majority of people in this country truly don’t understand how these kinds of measures are not just used for terrorists, they are used for anything the police and security services like. I don’t trust anyone to have that much control over my liberty and the rest of society’s right to privacy. Orwell got it right.

How do these pictures relate to your graff work – the illicit, subversive nature of it?

Harry F Conway: I started shooting Stolen Souls in the day, but I realised the flash isolated people in the frame at night. Also, people are more worried at night, if a guy jumps out at you in a camouflage jacket and weird camera gear in hand, people normally look pretty scared. I was used to roaming London at night due to my obsession with writing graffiti. For years, we’d take night buses all over town to paint spots and this gave me a great knowledge of the city at night. I knew which areas and streets to frequent to find the largest volume of people to prey on. It was a hunting exercise. I’d trawl the streets until the early hours, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, just searching for subjects to prey on with my lens.

How did people react to having you taking their pictures?

Harry F Conway: I’m a 6ft bald guy with a moustache jumping out at you with some weird camera set up in the dark. Most people kept it moving and didn’t look back. Some people would scream, others would mutter under their breath as they walked the other way. It turned into a bit of a social experiment; seeing who I thought would flip out. To tell the truth, I only got in a couple of fights the years I was shooting this series.

How did it feel, actually taking the pictures?

Harry F Conway: It felt uneasy at times. People think you’re some sicko. I got called a pervert a couple of times. Some nights I stopped shooting early, as it’s quite a difficult thing to take on; going out in the cold night after nightfall, attacking people with your camera. You change your mindset to that of a predator in search of prey; I began weighing up whether someone would attack me and if they fitted the series itself. I wanted it to be everyday people going about their everyday business, coming home from work or going to the shops. Stolen Souls is the paparazzi of the stranger.

Is there one picture that stands out to you?

Harry F Conway:There’s one picture of an older couple, (they’re) both wearing navy blue jackets and the women’s hat colour matches the colour of the guys silver white hair. The main difference in the photograph is their expressions; she looks disapprovingly into the lens as in contrast he looks bewildered like a deer in headlights.

“To tell the truth, I only got in a couple of fights the years I was shooting this series” – Harry F Conway

Now that you can’t do graff anymore, is this another way to make your voice heard? 

Harry F Conway: Yes, I definitely found it to be a transition of my energies. I was shooting photography before graffiti, but I didn’t take it too seriously. When I came out of prison I began to put more effort into taking pictures. Instead of spending my nights writing my name, I would walk for hours on end searching for frames. However cliché, it’s kind of become a therapy for me.

Are there any street photographers you’ve been particularly influenced by?

Harry F Conway: Garry Winogrand is a massive influence to me. When I look at his work I always see new things inside his frames. For me, he had an unparalleled eye. I only discovered Bruce Gilden through Stolen Souls and, obviously, his and Mark Cohen’s approaches aided me on the street.

We always hear graffiti artists referred to as “artists” but you use the word “writer”. Can you explain that?

Harry F Conway: There’s graffiti artists and there’s graff writers; two different kinds of people. I’m not going to go in depth about it. If you’re a writer you know you’re a writer. Fuck the British transport police and the London underground. Stop imprisoning kids for simply writing their names in paint and solve some real crime. We need to change the way we view ‘criminal damage’ and how we punish those responsible in this country. Instead of wasting the taxpayer’s money chasing kids about for a bit of graff, why don’t the BTP use their endless CCTV and go about solving all the sexual assaults on the rail network. We have the worst double standards; using graffiti for advertising, giving big brands street cred, yet we lock up those painting real graff. End custodial sentences for writers.

What do you want people to take away from the photos?

Harry F Conway: I want people to view these photographs and feel shame and unease. When people view these images in my book or at an exhibition, they feel awkward; like, ‘why are all these people looking at me like I’ve threatened them’? I want that intense set of emotions to reflect the nature of surveillance culture upon us right now. The aggressive nature of surveillance tactics used every day in the streets you walk around in London – just try and think about that for a minute, why do we need to be monitored so closely?

Stolen Souls launches with a private viewing on Thursday 21 April and will run Friday 22 April until 28 May at MMX Gallery, New Cross, London. Click here for more details and follow Conway for updates on Instagram here.