Black and white photographs
A new one every day
Each person writes a message
Something that someone once told them
We are all shaped by the things that someone once told us. The words we hear impact on us, whether we want them to or not, and it’s undeniable that they have a power.
Someone Once Told Me is essentially a means for me to practise my photography and to give me something to do on my days off as I wander around London, which always feels full of possibilities.
But SOTM is also an attempt to gather and chronicle some of the things that people have heard in their lives, the messages and expressions that have stuck in people's head, for reasons both obvious and odd.
What SOTM actually means is that people are asked, sometimes by appointment and sometimes randomly, to hold up a large piece of paper, upon which they write something that someone once told them. Or emailed. Or texted. Basically something that’s been communicated to them. But told, preferably.
A black and white photograph is then taken of them, and one new picture goes on the site every day, with the previous day’s entering the gallery.
The people who pose often tell the story behind the message, which enriches the moment of its capture, making it a complete and often moving human document. The messages are always diverse, but the uniformity of styling points to the universality of this need to pass on messages. So the site deals with deep human instincts, captured visually, and broadcast to the world via the internet.
One really, truly important purpose for this site is that it can gather SOTMs from elsewhere around the world – anywhere, everywhere, and the places in between. That way it becomes an anthropological account of people in different parts of the world, an account of what they've been told there, and how that compares to where you are reading the message they have chosen to pass on.
So the site needs you to take part, either by contacting me to volunteer to pose, or – even better – by sending in your own photographs, using the Your SOTM section.
Delve into your pasts and think of the words – serious, silly, profound and profane, that have stayed with you, for reasons known only to you. You don’t have to offer an explanation, but all anecdotes and contexts will be gratefully received, as a note goes under each picture to explain something about either the message displayed, or perhaps about the moment when the picture was taken.
Whenever I can get a SOTM in a non-English language, there'll be a Foreign Language Friday. So if you have a contribution you'd like to make, and it was passed on to you in a particular language, then don't be afraid to write it up that way - but please do provide an accurate translation that be be mentioned underneath the image.
So, get busy with your own SOTMs and send them in so I can put them up here, making you look incredibly cool and attractive. Plenty of these pictures will be mine, but I want yours – so click on Your SOTM, and get creative.
I came up with SOTM by accident – during an e-mail exchange with a friend at work in November 2006, she wrote me a reply, which I read, and then suddenly had a vision of her holding a board, upon which was written part of her message.
It was so strong an image that I can still see it now. But then, about two seconds later, I thought that, rather than having her own words displayed in such a manner, it would be more interesting to have her write down something that someone had told her. I don't know why, but it seemed like a cool idea.
That way, I reasoned, you’d start to wonder who had told her those words, and in what circumstances, and perhaps speculate on what effect they’d had. Also, interestingly, you’d introduce a third party.
I kept thinking about the idea, and within about 7 minutes almost all of the project was formed in my mind – it was that simple it didn’t take much working out. Like the best ideas, it came without invitation, and without reason.
I felt sure someone else would have done the same thing, as the culture of holding up boards is a very old one, first made famous by Bob Dylan in his early music video, Subterranean Homesick Blues, for example, and lately used widely in adverts promoting Apple computers.
I certainly couldn’t find anyone having done exactly what I was thinking about, only a vaguely similar use of signs in videos, magazines and on websites. So I decided to do Someone Once Told Me, myself.
I’d only begun to take photographs with any occasional degree of consistency around October 2006, starting with a Praktica MTL-3, made in East Germany from behind the Berlin Wall sometime around the early 1980s. It still works, though, and is so heavy it could probably double up as a blunt instrument.
I also bought a couple of Spotmatics, but the Praktica is the best to use – especially if you don’t really know what you’re doing.
In February 2007, prior to a trip to India, I bought a Nikon D40 which really helped to improve matters, as I no longer had to enter the haven of a darkroom to see the results of my experimental shutter-pressing. Now I could see right away on a digital screen what had, and hadn’t worked.
I still like film, but armed with my new toy I went to the sub-continent for a month and took 83 pictures there. I was filled with confidence after seeing how so many strangers embraced the concept of SOTM and how eager they were to take part.
There was one mishap however – at one point my 4gb memory card corrupted and I lost about 400 pictures, including 24 SOTM shots, some of which were very good and taken in unique settings, in the north of India.
As I sat mournfully sipping coffee in the town of McLeod Ganj, listening to the Dalai Lama give his annual teachings via a radio broadcast, I heard His Holiness speak about not forming attachment to worldly goods. I did my best to not feel bad about what had happened with my lost photographs, but it felt like a massive blow.
Happily, I later poured my heart out to the excellent Sanjay Shah, who runs The Standard Supply Co, a photographic dealer to be found at Image House, 123 W.h Marg, Fort, Mumbai firstname.lastname@example.org
To my delight he managed to retrieve almost all of the pictures, and all the SOTM ones. He stayed late to do this, fending off phone calls from his wife as they were due to go out to meet friends for dinner. He said wonderful things like "As a photographer myself I know how it feels..."
Armed with confidence that people might actually want to hold up a board and pose for a photograph, I carried on with renewed vigour when I returned to England. And so the project grew.
Although you can see the improvement in my work, I’m still trying to learn how to take “good” photographs. But I have improved, and have loved taking people's pictures as well as learning the strange, funny, sad things that someone once told them. SOTM has given me that, at least.