Emma Williams’ body of photographic work is a fierce juxtaposition between two ends of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum Williams has documented those she knows well – her friends – as they partake in the hedonistic lifestyle of the modern youth culture, and at the other end of the spectrum she’s documented subjects completely unknown to her – strangers she discovers while curiously wandering the streets of London. Nowadays however, Williams focuses on the latter of the two documentations, and much of this work can be found in her recently released zine “Street Dreams”.
I had a conversation with her recently regarding her work, inspirations, and aspirations.
So where are you from originally?
I’m from West London. Well I was born in Birmingham but I moved to West London when I was eleven.
Most of your photographs are portraits. Almost all the ones I’ve seen in fact. What attracts you taking photos of people so much?
I personally like photos which have people in them because I think it says a lot… there’s more personality in them. I speak to a lot of the people I take photos of for quite a while and they’ve always got these mad stories. Because of that I think they’re the most interesting subjects for photos really.
Sometimes I see street photography of homeless people and such, and it seems like the photographer is looking down on the subject and it often seems like it was an uncomfortable and awkward interaction which created the photo. In your street documentary work however the subjects seem quite relaxed and comfortable – how do you create this?
Well I don’t like going in and saying “Can I take a photo?”, because I think that approach is quite disrespectful – so I speak to them. Most of them for like ten or fifteen minutes usually. I speak to them about what they’re interested in, what they want to do, how they’ve got to where they’re at and all that. I think that a lot of the people who you could say are ‘disregarded by society’ are actually kind of happy that you’re taking an interest in them.
But still, sometimes I get told to fuck off.
What is it about an individual that attracts you to taking a photo of them?
I can’t really put it in words. It’s those sorts of people that you see and you just know that they’ve had a mad life and that they’ve got mad stories to tell. You can kind of get that from how they look.
I take photos of my mates as well when we’re out and waved and stuff but I’m pretty much mostly interested in people who have cool stories to tell. People who just look interesting and not like your everyday sorts.
Would you be able to talk about your zine “Street Dreams”?
Yeah totally. I wanted to make a zine ages ago but I decided to wait a while until I had more photos. But yeah, my street photography is what it’s based on so pretty much every single photo is a portrait.
I just wanted it to be sort of an insight into street photography – the way I see street photography in London. Also, because I took all the photos for it over the past year and a half, it’s just cool for me personally to look back on and think about all these different nights and people I’ve met and spoken to. And because the people I take photos of all have a lot of character it means that even though it’s only a little forty-five-page zine you get to see a lot of different types of people which I think is cool.
It seems like you get a lot of inspiration from going out and meeting interesting characters in London, but are there any other photographers who you’d say inspire you or influence your work?
Yeah definitely. Boogie Photographer is my favourite photographer – he’s amazing. What I like about him is that he properly gets to know and becomes friends with the people he takes photos of. I saw an interview with him on YouTube and he says that sometimes he gets to the point where they’re messaging him saying stuff like “I’m gonna smoke crack later with my mate – come take photos”. They’re fully open with him so he’s just a fly-on-the-wall. That’s pretty much the goal for me so he’s a big inspiration. Bruce Davidson as well. He’s one of the first photographers I properly got into and his “Subway” book is still my favourite book.
And then there’s also my friends who actually inspired me to start with. Like I was initially quite shy with sharing my photos because I just didn’t want to put myself out there so it was people like Harry Conway on Instagram and The London Vagabond who were big inspirations to begin with.
Have you seen the documentary “Everybody Street”? That seems like your kind of thing.
Oh yeah, that’s amazing. That’s a really sick documentary. I remember when I saw that it made me just want to get out of bed and go outside and take photos. It’s just so inspiring.
Yeah exactly. So are you studying?
Yeah I’m in second year at University.
Where are you at?
I’m at Cambridge at the moment.
What the fuck.
It’s so hard though. I used to feel smart when I was at school and stuff but now I’m at Cambridge it’s like I’m just bottom of the pile… I’m not that fussed though, I just came because I want to get a degree.
In the last year though I’ve been taking so many more photos and been taking it a lot more seriously so I reckon when I finish I’ll keep doing that for a year and see where I get because I’ve had such a good reaction to the zines. People seem really interested in them.
Is that what you want to do in the future?
Yeah ideally. In an ideal world I’d take photos for a living.
How do you want to improve your photography?
I want to get more confident with it. I want to go into places where people don’t. I’d love to do a series on dangerous dogs and dog fights and stuff like that because that really interests me. I just want to get braver with it and push it further.
You seem pretty brave already to be fair.
The first time someone told me to fuck off I was like oh my god, and I didn’t take another photo or ask anyone for the whole day – but you just get used to it. It’s worth it as well because when someone’s cool and you get their photo and it’s a sick photo, it doesn’t really matter that five people told you to fuck off that day.