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Sneaky Portraits on a Train


It was probably our shared love of the metro that drew me to Lesley Lilley and her candid portrait project, #theeverydaycommute. Commuting on the southern line for almost twenty years between Fishhoek and the Foreshore in Cape Town, it was only after she joined Instagram in 2012 that Lesley began to see the opportunities her daily route provided for her mobile photography.

Getting on the train, she has a quick look around to see if any particular passenger catches her eye, and taking into account the seasons, the way the light falls across the carriage, and the direction the train is going in, she picks a seat. Since so many travellers are absorbed in their book, fiddling on their tablet, or glued to their phone, nobody really notices Lesley sneakily snapping away with her iPhone. Except for that one time, when a guy standing directly behind her, approached her and the woman sitting opposite her and asked them both, 'Are you two friends?' 'No,' they answered simultaneously. 'Then why are you taking pictures of her and posting them on Facebook or something?' he continued. A very awkward silence ensued. 'Well, you see,' Lesley rambled, 'I'm doing this social studies project...' Silence. And then a hurried exit from the train. 

Honest portraiture and the issue of permission is a hotly debated topic. Some say we live in a world where we're always on camera, whether it be in a shopping centre, a bank queue or just in the background of some tourist's holiday snap. If that is the case, merely by leaving our houses we give the world tacit permission to capture us on film. Street photographers, those who capture unposed scenes in public places, make the point that as soon as you introduce yourself into the shot by asking permission to take someone's picture, you've lost an opportunity. The previously unselfconscious commuter, bystander or person in the street now becomes suspicious and closed. You get a totally different kind of portrait - awkward, stilted, and unnatural. 

Whatever your take on this might be, one thing is for sure - Lesley Lilley's #theeverydaycommute project is worth taking a look at. She remembers her first portrait subject, an elderly lady with greying hair pulled back from her face whom she photographed on a wintry July morning. 'Something drew me to her,' says Lesley. Since then, over a period of two years, she's added more than 250 photographs to the project hashtag. Some in colour, others in black and white, her portraits always provide a raw and intimate glimpse into the life of her fellow commuters. 

A selection of some of my favourite images from #theeverydaycommute.

I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images I live with them.
— Bruce Gilden (Street photographer)

Although she's never formally met the people behind her photographs, Lesley's daily commute has given her a sense of being at home among the people she travels with, and she often asks herself, 'Would I be happy with this photo if it were taken of me?' If the answer is yes, she posts it. If not, perhaps the quality of the sunlight, the seat she chooses on her journey, and the people who end up travelling home with her will provide another secret portrait opportunity. 

Lesley shoots on Camera+ or Hipstamatic on her iPhone 5, and edits with VSCO. You'll find her on Instagram at @LesleyLilley. 

To ask or not to ask? What are your thoughts on street photography and the issue of permission?