Exploring Intimacy and Connection through Photography - Interview with Felix Pilgrim

Marianne Stenger
1st June 2022

After the extreme isolation many experienced during the Covid-19 lockdowns between 2020 and 2021, photographer Felix Pilgrim set out to explore and celebrate connection and intimacy in the queer community. 

His photographic series and the resulting photobook ‘Hosts’ shines a light on queer Londoners who use the gay dating app Grindr, and looks at their unique views and experiences of intimacy. 

“In creating this series, I wanted to celebrate the fact that people could once again meet in each other's homes. I also wanted to reflect on the idea of physical distance and what we'd all been through. I learnt that photography can therapeutically connect two people without their having to touch,” he explains. 

'Hosts', which can be found in the Bob Bookshop, was selected as one of the winners of British Vogue and YouTube’s Future Visionaries competition. 

We had the chance to ask him a few questions about the project and his experience creating it, as well as his photography practice and upcoming projects.

Image © Felix Pilgrim

Could you tell us a bit about yourself as a photographer? 

I started taking photographs using an old analogue camera that belonged to my mum in the 1970s. I wanted to create images that felt elevated beyond the realms of the everyday. 

My friends and I, many of whom shared a love of acting and theatre-making, would enjoy performing for the camera, treating it almost like an audience member. My first series, 'Duende', documented an acting residency I took part in on the island of Lesbos in Greece. 

I'd say my style is inspired by performance as well as cinematography. The films of Xavier Dolan and Sofia Copolla have influenced my approach to composition and framing.

How did the idea for ‘Hosts’ come about? 

Two very different things happened more or less simultaneously. Towards the end of 2020, I was looking at photographers who had been included in the Taylor Wessing photographic Portrait Prize and came across a portrait of Nadia Hussain taken by Phil Sharp. In it, Hussain is looking out a window and the natural light is illuminating her face beautifully.

I then took out my phone and thought about how using Grindr to arrange hook-ups with people felt unacceptable due to the various national lockdowns. I visualised members of the queer community sat indoors, a little like Hussain, looking out and waiting for the pandemic to be over. 

I wanted to create the impression they were longing for someone or something just out of reach, with the window representing both the past and the uncertainty of the future. In May 2021, I started a free online course organised by Photofusion and Lambeth City Council called 'STEP UP to Photography'. Over Zoom, a group of us learnt about different types of photographic techniques and were encouraged to create a final project. 

I decided to follow through with my original idea and create portraits of people via Grindr. Thanks to the course, I was introduced to the series 'Whispering for Help' by visual artist Marie Smith. I wanted 'Hosts' to be similarly collaborative, so I decided to ask each person I photographed the question "What does Intimacy mean to you?" and include their responses alongside their portraits.  

What were some of the things you wanted to bring across in this series?

Before the pandemic, using apps to arrange hookups had become habitual for many people. One moment you'd be on your phone, and the next moment you could be in the home of a stranger, united by your need for physical contact, pleasure and intimacy. 

Although social distancing was crucial for minimising the spread of Covid-19, the lockdown rules felt extreme, as they limited our ability to physically connect with other people. It also felt frustrating that the UK government failed to acknowledge how challenging the lockdowns would be for single people, regardless of sexuality or gender.

In creating this series, I wanted to celebrate the fact people could meet once again in each other's homes. I also wanted to reflect on what we'd been through and the idea of physical distance. I learnt that photography can therapeutically connect two people without their having to touch.

Using Grindr to arrange casual sex also carries with it a certain level of stigma. With this series, I wanted to illuminate people's vulnerability, strength, beauty, and above all, dignity. After all, trying to connect with people on a deeper emotional or physical level is extremely human, and nothing to be ashamed of.

In practical terms, how did you go about shooting the images?

I changed my profile name to 'Photographer' and gave information about the project in my bio. Grindr shows you profiles of people in your local area, so everyone I photographed lived in South London.

If they were able to come round to my place, I would position each person looking out of my bedroom window, as every morning at a certain time, the room would be flooded with sunlight. 

I shot the series using Kodak Gold film, which gives warmth to skin tones. The saturation of colours makes people look radiant when the light touches their face. I also made a very DIY reflector out of a cereal packet and strip of tin foil. I held this in my right hand, while my other hand took the picture.

In terms of posing and composition, I considered painters like Raphael and Vermeer who created portraits that elevated the status of regular people. I was also inspired by the chiaroscuro painting technique, where faces appear to glow as they emerge from dark, negative space. I wanted to recreate this technique and reflect upon how, with restrictions easing, society at large was effectively moving from darkness into the light.

Your series was selected as one of the winners of British Vogue and YouTube’s ‘Future Visionaries’ competition. Could you tell us a bit about this? 

I was elated when I found out I'd been selected as one of the winners. In my application, I'd stressed that the day-to-day, quieter moments of queer life are not always represented in the mainstream media and that although Vogue is often thought of as a women's magazine, its readership transcends gender. 

I was so pleased that my words had been taken into account, and I was so excited to buy the March 2022 edition when it hit newsstands. As part of the prize, I also received a mentoring session with a member of the Vogue team, which has proved invaluable in helping me take my next steps as a photographer.

Do you have any advice for others looking to put together a photobook to showcase a photo series?

I suppose the first step is thinking about the layout of your images. Sometimes I use a simple Word document in landscape mode to see what my photographs look like side-by-side. Websites like Canva are also really useful for creating prototype books.

I was lucky enough to receive guidance from the graphic designer, Mike Dempsey, who told me that fonts evoke different moods and even emotions. With this in mind, it's important to carefully consider the available fonts and the energy they hold for the person reading your words.

What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects coming up?

In the summer of 2022, the French publisher, Nowhere Fast is releasing a zine showcasing photographs I've taken from 2011-now, which is something I’m very excited about. 

The three photographs published in Vogue are currently on display at the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre. I recently led a workshop there where we learnt about other queer photographers and created experimental portraits of each other.

My next project is going to focus on blind and visually impaired photographers. I want to explore what photographs mean for people who might not be able to see them, but who nevertheless enjoy constructing images and the process of taking photographs. 

I'm hoping to create a sensory installation which brings together performance, texture, scent and audio recordings so that photography can be experienced in a multitude of ways.  

Biography:

Felix Pilgrim is an analogue photographer whose practice explores portraiture, performance and the queer experience. Drawing upon his background in theatre-making as well as growing up in a religious household, he is drawn to ritualistic, sacred and theatrical subject matter. His work aims to illuminate the beauty and mystery of the everyday. Pilgrim lives and works in London.

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