The past weeks have been full of travel, feeding me with new impulses and images to write about. Since I live in a cow village, it doesn’t hurt to escape natural habitat upon occasion and taste the big wide world out there, especially the kind found in a metropolis that seethes with humanity and its associated creativity. Unfortunately, travel also involves returning home to find no one has done my work. Although the weeds in my garden are still making faces at me, I’m ignoring them. I can just about peer over the mounds on my desk and see my way clear to share with you an experience I had while in London in early May.
Before we visited the exhibition “Inventing Impressionism” at the National Gallery, my husband suggested we have a look in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a church located adjacent to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. In all our many years, first living in and then visiting London, we had never been inside. After admiring the Greek Revival architecture of the interior, we descended to the crypt, now a café and exhibition space.
A photo exhibition by Milan Svanderlik, titled Outsiders in London, was on display and we had the incredible luck of visiting on a day when the photographer was present in the flesh. We were admiring his portraits and reading the stories about the subjects when Mr. Svanderlik approached us for a chat.
He spoke the excellent if accented English of one not native-born but long resident in Britain. Originally from Northern Bohemia, Mr Svanderlik had lived in Yugoslavia and Switzerland before settling in London forty years ago. His background alone gives him an excellent head start for studying outsiders.
Mr Svanderlik is a man who not only photographs interesting-looking subjects but is also deeply interested in their stories. Each portrait was accompanied by a brief introduction to that person. And each person had a history as an outsider, whether due to disability, race, nationality, beliefs or sexual orientation. Some had been able, early in their lives, to make a virtue of their outsider status, while others suffered greatly before owning up to it and accepting who they were.
Margaret Dawn Pepper, formerly Maurice David Pepper
Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen, anti-Zionist
Henry Fraser, quadriplegic, with his bother Will
In our conversation with him, Mr Svanderlik shared more information about his project in general and his subjects in particular. Some of them had been able not only to accept but also use their situation as outsiders to excel in their fields. Indeed, often what made them outsiders was exactly what was needed to achieve excellence.
It made me think about the dichotomy of the human condition. In most cases, a person feels a need to belong, whether to a family, a tribe, a political party, a profession, etc. Not being accepted in any of these social structures because of something about us that the crowd cannot identify with, can lead to severe problems for an individual.
And yet, don’t many of us want to stand out in this densely populated world? We seek recognition for our talents and achievements. We don’t want to disappear in the masses of mankind. But of course, we desire the status of outsider, not as a stigma but as a badge of quality.
The people chosen by Milan Svanderlik have transformed their otherness into a virtue, and in many cases are affecting the lives of those around them in most positive ways. For outsiders who have yet to find a way to cope with their otherness, these life stories may just offer help.
Although Milan Svanderlik’s exhibition at St. Martin-in-the-Fields has finished, you can see his work and read the poignant stories about his Outsiders at: http://www.outsidersinlondon.org
All portraits appear with the kind permission of Milan Svanderlik, holder of the copyright. (The photo of St. Martin’s is my very own pathetic tourist shot.)