George Georgiou - Americans Parade (2019)

Commissioned by the British Journal of Photography

At the beginning of 2016, the United States was gearing up for one of the most divisive elections in its history, the cycle already in full swing. Trump had not yet been selected as the Republican candidate. At the same time, George Georgiou was travelling the West Coast, shooting the first pictures for a new project that had been brewing quietly for several years, and that would eventually become Americans Parade.

“Is it possible to make an interesting body of work in the US, knowing what’s been before?” Georgiou was asking himself. The States had been an aspiration for him since his student days at the Polytechnic of Central London. America, with its incomparably rich photographic precedent, presented a challenge common to all aspiring photographers brought up on the likes of Evans and Adams and Frank: “is there something I can find here? Is there something I can see? Is there a commentary I want to make, is there something I can understand?” The route to Americans Parade was, however, circuitous.

In 2011, Georgiou had been part of the New Photography show at MoMA, and the same year his partner, Vanessa Winship, had won the HCB Award, funding her proposal for a new body of work in the United States. It was their moment; but Georgiou stopped shooting. “I felt that Vanessa needed to kind of make her own way. She had a deadline. I didn’t have a deadline,” he explains. They travelled the length and breadth of the country together, Georgiou assisting her in making the work that eventually became She Dances on Jackson. Throughout, though, ideas were beginning to percolate, impressions forming. “I stopped shooting, but I didn’t stop looking, and trying to find out what was interesting to me.” It was four years after the beginning of Winship’s project that Georgiou began his own American work in earnest.

“At the beginning of 2016, I basically thought, right: it’s now or never. I’ve got to go out and start this work or forget about it,” Georgiou describes. He flew to LA, planning to follow the thread of a project he’d been ruminating about — a work about “the politics of the road, how the road has shaped America, how it’s created a lot of separation and segregation” — and went to a Martin Luther King Day parade, photographing there. A couple of days later in Long Beach, at the second parade he went to, the whole aesthetic of the work, his whole approach, suddenly emerged fully-formed. “I parked the car, got to the parade and instantly started shooting like this.” The pulled-back, encompassing, teeming vistas that now populate his eventual project were all he shot that day, with not a single false start, not a single frame that deviated from the form. “I just instinctively knew what I was going do.”

Americans Parade, in its resulting incarnation, is a series of tableaux. The viewpoint is at a remove, taking in a sweeping section of a crowd, at times — at the larger parades — held back behind municipal barriers, at times just showing a few figures, a few family groupings, on an American sidewalk, looking around, presumably taking in the flourishes of a parade that occurs out of shot: floats, celebrations. Georgiou photographed at Mardi Gras, at July 4th, St Patrick’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day; he photographed on enormous metropolitan boulevards closed down for the festivities, and in tiny communities in small-town America. The context is constant, but the particulars change. With Georgiou, we are witness to an act of witnessing, the detritus of a public celebration gathering in the trash at people’s feet.

Regardless of the context, Georgiou’s approach was the same for each: arrive at the location the night before, recce the route on Street View, start to plan a few striking backdrops where possible. Then he would arrive half an hour before the parade was due to begin, set up, and follow it as it processed, stopping when he saw a particular group or moment he was drawn to, shooting three or four frames, and then moving on. The methodology was fairly strict, always following the same rubric of the wide frame, the black and white, the group scenes. “It’s the only way to give it a kind of coherence, at the same distance, and the same type of frame. It gives each image the same weight.”

Editing these images and, later, sequencing them — the work will be self-published in a book — proved more difficult. “This was the hardest thing I’ve ever edited,” he describes. “I’m going from one image to the other, and scrutinising each one, going over these little sections, flicking from one to the other… It just drove me crazy, really crazy.” The coherence of one section might be overshadowed by a particular individual’s expression elsewhere in the frame, or the graphic composition might be stronger. Then again, part of the joy of the work is the magic of its accidents; it was impossible to take in everything in each shot, so much of the eventual image was a surprise even to the photographer. “Maybe the part that I was focussing on is not even the strongest part, in the end.”

Though the images present crowds, large and small, the granular fact of their composition, their depiction of numerous individuals, is confronting, too. “I kind of see these as portrait images,” Georgiou explains. “It’s a contemporary group portrait, which is full of signs and symbols of today.” In New Orleans, he attended two different Mardi Gras parades, one in Algiers, a poorer neighbourhood south of the river, in the morning, and one in St Charles, an affluent area, in the afternoon. In the latter image, almost every person is overwhelmed by the strings of beads hanging from their necks, souvenirs to be thrown at the floats, almost reaching down to their knees. The houses are well-to-do, with columns and stone engravings, and high chairs are positioned all along the front so their residents can have a good view. In Algiers, the beads are far fewer, and there are no high chairs, nor houses, just a sea of African American faces, blank sky and telephone wires behind them. Like a traditional portrait, each one tells a story of the environment and the people in it, the economic and racial context of the parade. Then again, the anonymity and sheer volume of the different faces blur into a kind of abstract familiarity; in each picture we find ourselves searching, inadvertently, for somebody we know. “It’s kind of like we’re looking at ourselves. We could be in these pictures,” the photographer observes. Georgiou is ever-conscious of this sense of recognition inherent to the work, the way that even a crowd, when repeatedly portrayed, can come to feel personal.

Throughout the project, Georgiou maintained a near-invisible presence. There are almost no images in which any of the crowd look in the direction of the camera, their attention elsewhere: on family members, or their phones, or the rest of the commotion around them. Even in the case of small groupings of just a few people, his subjects remain impassive, unbothered by the documentarian’s presence. Georgiou credits his absence from the work to his blending in to the background, both due to being surrounded by a spectacle more absorbing than him, and to his unassuming mien: “I think if there’s any advantages to getting older, it’s that you become less threatening to people,” he laughs. This invisibility is a strength; his self-effacement leads to a more revealing depiction of the people grouped in front of his lens.

In this way, Georgiou was able to access a surprising kind of intimacy with his multiple subjects: the intimacy of unguarded self-presentation, the purity of revelation that emanates from a person who is unaware of being looked at. This way of engaging is in stark contrast to the more formalised work of a directed portrait sitting. “I think when you’re making a portrait, there’s a performance to an extent,” Georgiou explains. “It’s a stage that’s created between the two people. I don’t know who influences that stage the most, I don’t know who reveals the most. If you look at the portrait, is it revealing more about the photographer, or is it revealing more about the subject?”

By contrast, the images in Americans Parade are guileless, without motive. Georgiou withholds judgement: he seems to be as invisible to the viewers of his images as he is to his subjects. “That’s the beauty of it,” he says, when I ask about the work’s impression of motivelessness. “It has that feeling of detachment.” The element of chance — the fact that, in any one frame, there was so much of which he was unaware— is important to Georgiou, allowing as it does for him to operate at a remove, for the photograph to create itself, to construct its own narrative. The conclusions that can be drawn from any one image happen within the viewer rather than being proffered by the didactic hand of the artist. “That’s the good thing about photography,” he iterates. “I know that things are not black and white. I know they’re complicated, everything’s complex. And I like to understand the world with that nuance.” This is particularly true of Americans Parade.

While Georgiou was shooting the project, Trump was elected, and North America’s sociocultural landscape shifted seismically. But much of the approach for Georgiou’s work came to him during that period where he wasn’t working at all, travelling the country with Winship, Trump still a distant spectre on the horizon. “That time allowed me to deal with my own anger with the States,” he describes. “I think it’s very easy to attack the States, but then I don’t think you necessarily make anything interesting. I think you have to have some kind of empathy.” In the eventual project, both empathy and anger are barely visible, veiled behind the mass of the crowds. The scenes play out with their own logic, Georgiou their witness, and us their audience, a crowd witnessing a crowd. Georgiou’s next projects will undoubtedly continue with some kind of social commentary, though for the moment, he is in no rush, enjoying the process of thinking, of observing. “I like the theatre of life,” he tells me.