Human behavior and the notion of ‘society’ are regular themes in British photographer Michael McIlvaney’s street photography and his haunting series Subordinate is no exception.
In fact, McIlvaney, who studied politics and sociology at the University of Durham, says the series is actually a sub-plot of a wider ongoing project entitled Preyed. The body of work explores the street as a theater: the subject is actor/victim, the public space is the stage/perpetrator and the photographer is the spectator, waiting in the wings. The fourth dimension, he explains, is the viewer—the ultimate participant.
Central to his project and ideas about his work is the work of American sociologist and scholar Richard Sennett, who writes about the changing role of the individual in society. “In The Fall of Public Man, Sennett sought to explain shifts between and within the public and private spheres of life in London, Paris and New York over the past two centuries,” McIlvaney says. “As regards to my own project, I have attempted to project some of the ideas explored by Sennett into the images.”
Through his photographs, McIlvaney asks viewers to ask their own questions about society and human interaction in a changing world and what he calls the “evolving script of the theater of the street” as observed through the “peephole or crevice” of his viewfinder. With a sharp and observant eye, he dissects the variety of ways in which people hold themselves as they move through their surroundings, reflecting on the changing nature of public space.
“Once the realm for forming meaningful relationships, the public domain has become an arena for strangers where interaction has been replaced with suspicion, wariness and observation. At the same time, the private realm has become increasingly narcissistic,” he says. “So how does this play out on the public stage? It might be by a desire to assimilate by wearing the latest fashion or simply by avoiding drawing attention to oneself in other ways—for example by checking one’s appearance in reflective surfaces before entering a new space like a shop or café—or it might be the process of keeping one’s distance, avoiding eye contact, or not conversing at a busy bus stop.”
He further explains that it was actually during the project that he began to reflect on his own role in the production of images. “Thus many of the images bear witness to my presence through shadow or by sub-framing…as well as being immersive, this method led to feelings of tension, uneasiness and a degree of self-questioning.”
McIlvaney shot Subordinate over a period of one year, mainly in Birmingham, England. He makes photographs every day and works in his self-described “parallel world” as a lawyer specializing in defending and enforcing the rights of the homeless. “When I’m not trying to keep people off the streets, I spend most of my time on the streets with my camera working on the next or latest project,” he says. “Instead of hoarding the numerous images I take every day, I have started to share them.”
Editor’s note: Michael McIlvaney won third place for this series in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2020. Check out the finalists and winners to discover more new, inspirational takes on the tradition of street photography.