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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 11:15 GMT
Intimate strangers
Strangers in the street project
The project began by talking to "the man in the Panama hat"

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

There are people you see every day but never meet. Urban living is full of these close encounters where we never make contact. A photographer decided to talk to these "intimate strangers", see the photo gallery here.

Ever wondered who that person is you see each day on the way to work? Never spoken to them, but you see them every single morning.

I walk to work picture gallery

You know what clothes they wear, the paper they read, the way they always stand at the same place on the platform. They also see you there every day. But they're still strangers.

These familiar strangers are part of urban living - neighbours you've never spoken to, the bloke who works in the cafe, the woman who sells you a newspaper, the usual suspects on the train.

Photographer Susie Rea is working on a project examining these odd, displaced relationships - where people are part of the landscape of our daily lives but remain anonymous and out of contact.

Cat in the hat

"It's a weird one - there is an intimacy with someone you recognise, but they are still a total stranger," says the photographer.

And she's even broken the great non-talking taboo by approaching these people to ask them about their lives and to take their photographs.

Television screen
People can see the world, but know little of the streets around them

"It struck me as strange that you could go past these people every day and not know who they are," says Ms Rea, who like the people she has photographed, lives in north-west London.

"You could see these people more often than some of your own friends - but you don't know anything about them, you don't know their names, whether they've got family or what they do with their lives."

Her starting point was seeing a man in a Panama hat each day. He was always wearing it and it intrigued her to think about who he might be - conjecturing that he must be "a writer or a teacher, someone who could get away with wearing that hat".

But approaching him was difficult. "It takes quite a lot to meet someone you recognise but have never spoken to... it's a very weird experience," she says.

No man's land

After failing to take the plunge a couple of times, eventually she spoke to the man in the Panama hat. He turned out to be a jeweller - and when she saw him each day he was walking to the synagogue where he was training to be a rabbi.

Bus queue
Urban living can be about ignoring the people nearest

From this starting point, she began to approach others who are daily fixtures on her way to work - people who worked in shops she used, neighbours who stood at the gate, passers-by whose lives briefly overlapped with her own.

Her photos began to map out this community of strangers - people from Barbados, India, Iran, Ireland and Australia. There was even someone there from London. And the guys who ran the chip shop turned out to be from Macedonia and Kurdistan.

And from only knowing them as the "older gentleman from number 220" or "the man in the shop that sells everything", the photographer began to flesh out their characters, learning something about their background and beliefs.

But urban life is full of contradictions and can still bite you when you least expect it. Because even though Susie Rea had made a new circle of friends out of these familiar faces, when she was locked out of her house, her own neighbours wouldn't help. "It's a strange beast," she says.

Screen community

Her project also highlights how little we know about what goes on outside our own front door. A community is now a non-geographical concept. Friends and family are scattered widely - with contacts kept by mobile phone and e-mail. And the real-life neighbourhood becomes an unknown zone.

Tube train
Commuters occupy the same space while staying strangers

We can look at the television or the internet to find out about what's happening thousands of miles away, day and night. But the streets outside? It can be a blindspot, a no-man's land which we navigate but never really know.

And the more often you see people you recognise but never talk to, the more difficult it becomes to cross that boundary.

The next stage of Susie Rea's "I walk to work" project is to carry out deeper research into the lives of the people she meets, capturing more information about these familiar faces who share the same streets.

Looking around a group of commuters, plugged into their iPods and sealed into their own thoughts, it might go against the grain to try to reach out. But this is what the photographer wants to explore.

"It's the things that are around us that are really fascinating... I like dealing with what's under my nose," she says. "It's about extending your hand."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I commuted from Bath to Swindon once as a trainee teacher and began talking to a woman who also commuted on that route. It turned out she was also a teacher. We talked every morning on the train. After three months, my training was over. On our last journey together we finally exchanged our names.
Suzanne, Edinburgh

Fascinating article - I know the exact feeling. There are people I see most days while travelling to and from work, yet the most conversation I've had with any of them is a couple of words. I'm wondering now what they are like outside that narrow window into their lives I've seen - does the woman with the Lake Wobegon book read anything else? Does the woman who works in my building do the same thing as I do? Does the man with the briefcase always carry it only in his left hand?
Matthew Pettitt, Manchester

This is so true, I thought I was the only one who gave nicknames to people I used to see every day. I used to walk past this one man every morning for two years nicknaming him "the Australian" now I wish I had spoken to him and found out if he really was from Australia!
E. Long, Ipswich

For the past few years I have driven past three such strangers on the way to work every day: Big Ears, Weird Girl and Nick the Greek (probably not their real names). I'd love to know who they really are, what they do and what they are like but I think these points will remain a mystery. However, I am planning on shouting 'Merry Christmas' to all of them as I speed past this year.
Seb, Leicester

What a great idea. The same applies to your neighbour next door. You always see the same person all the time, everyday but never really know who they they are, what they do and who they stay with. Knowing the person you always cross your paths with can help make this world a safer and more secure place.
Wilfred Osumo, Lucern, Switzerland

Loved this article and the pictures - ordinary normal people doing everyday stuff - but with a story to tell - this is going on all around us everyday - we should make more contact with each other.
E. Taylor, Isle of Man

I walk to work and always passed the same person every day without saying hello. After several months I thought, "this is stupid", so I stopped her, said hello and introduced myself. After that each morning we shared a smile and a hello - until a couple of weeks later she changed the way she walks to work. It was never anything other than a smile and a hello, so I guess some people prefer to be left undisturbed. It's a pity, as it brightened up an otherwise routine walk to work.
Chris, Nottingham

I walk my dogs at 6.30 every morning. I see the same people day in day out walking their dogs too or going to their place of work. One person facinates me. We cross every morning and every time we acknowledge each other. He is middle aged, carries a napsack and is clearly off to work. At that hour of the morning, neither of us are ready to engage in conversation, so I suppose I will always wonder what his job actually is.
N. Summers, Salisbury

Your article struck a chord with me. I have been married to my husband for 8 years, but have actually "known" him for 13 years as we lived in the same small community in Edinburgh and walked the same route to work each day. We eventually met in a local wine bar one night while out with separate groups of friends, and at that point we realised we had passed each other many times. We now live in another part of Edinburgh, have two young children and try very hard to get to know our neighbours. But even in the suburbs it can be difficult as many peole work during the day. Not trying would be wrong though as neighbours add to the fabric of our family lives.
T Cruickshank, Edinburgh

This is the first time I have added a comment to an article. It is not something I normally do but, this is such a fantastic idea that I wanted to express my thanks to Rea. I enjoyed the pictures and commentary very much. I have always been fascinated with the stories of the people we meet; veterans of past wars, people on trains and planes. Every one with their place in the world and their story to tell. An inspiring project, I do hope Rea carries on.
Pete A, Berlin, Germany

I love Putney Bridge tube station for watching peoples lives progress. There was the 'Curly Haired Tiny Lady', who I noticed one day appeared with an engagement ring, sometime later a fantastic tan and a wedding ring-and later still a beach-ball pregnancy bump. And does anyone else cringe at the 'Crazy Elf Woman' who gets totally stressed by the tube and always demands a seat?
Nicky, London

I catch a small bus once a week that wends its way through the neighbourhood, and every week the same people get on. For 18 months I've exchanged pleasantries and chit-chat with a woman from our road who also catches it - including heavy-weight topics like the redundancies at her hospital, our childcare dilemmas etc - but it was only this week that I found out her name. Because she told my toddler.
Eve, Walthamstow

A friend and I walk from Victoria to St Mary's Hosp - Paddington each morning through Hyde Park. Already we have constructed what we imagine to be the stories and life histories of the people we pass day to day. We marvel at the bravery of the early morning sepentine swimmers and even have a name, Ned, for the Black Swan we see all alone on the water each day. Maybe soon we'll be brave enough to say Hello to some of our 'intimate strangers'.
Neil, London

I passed Eiran many times on my way to work, and a while back he introduced himself and we agreed that we would say 'hello' from now on. I lived in the North of England for 20 years and was always told that London was not a friendly place. I have learnt that if I am friendly, everywhere around me seems friendlier. I sometimes buy my lunch at George's chippy. (recommended).
Lucy, London

I ride a motorcyle into work in central London and used to pass a lady walking her greyhound and then a chap with a beard and glasses at practically the same spots every morning at about 06:45. About two weeks ago I started leaving 15 minutes earlier and have not seen them since then. I have been thinking "I wonder if they are wondering what has happened to that biker that used to drive past at the same time everyday...." This article makes me think perhaps they do wonder!
Claire Dyson, Weybridge

Great article, so true. I and my parents had lived in our house for 10 years and never spoken to our neighbours. Then the 1987 hurricane happened and we had a huge tree crash through our roof. That day the neighbours all came round to have a look and offer food etc. My parents still live in the same house, but the neighbours have never spoken since. Only one day in 30 years when everyone aknowledged they were part of the same community.
C Taylor, Heathfield East Sussex

Oh, stop it, you touchy-feely freak! I live in London precisely because people here are NOT overly intimate. I like the fact that I walk amongst strangers, I love the fact I am not subject to tedious drivel from people who happen to impinge upon my geography. If you want to know your neighbours, go live up North or something - stop assuming we all want to be like you.
Tony, London

What a marvellous article, and a wonderful idea. I am retired now, but walk my dog regularly each day, and by doing this have made many new friends who also own dogs. My dog has made new friends of her own too, and we often meet up around the same time so we can chat, and our dogs can run and play together! Everyone gets on wonderfully, owning a dog is a great way to make friends!
Sandie Seward, Basildon

I recently passed my driving test and no longer get the train to work. I wonder how "ten year-old buiness-man", "Gorgeous tea-cake man", "Dr. Earwax", "tousled bike man" and "yawning toast woman" are.
Aggy, Walsall

I commute into London from Surrey each day, and would see a certain gentleman on the station everyday, we would nod and smile. Eventually he approached me and we began chatting each morning on the train. Then we went for a drink after work and got to know each other. We are now engaged and getting married in July 2007. Goes to show how far a little friendly gesture can go!
Traci, London

This is brilliant. I cannot stand the totally bored/ rude exterior of every commuter, and the fact that it is seen as such a 'weird experience' to just go and talk to someone who you see five days a week. have some banter with them. I think it shows quite a sad side to society that people put up walls around them and wont even help when you get locked out of your house!
Oliver, London

My partner commutes to London for work every day, and has made a circle of "commuter" friends who all sit in roughly the same seats on the same train carriage every day. They chat and joke for the hour long journey to/from work, and then go away and lead seperate, unrelated lives. Last week my partner spent a Saturday morning buying small Xmas presents for his commuter buddies, as they're having a little party on the early morning train to work. Earlier this year they celebrated one of the group's birthday with cake on the train. It is strange how this group of acquaintances operate/define their friendship purely during the hour or two they spend on the train together every day. Outside of this milieu they don't really know much about each other, but have managed to become a circle of friends who convene, almost ritually, on the commuter train!
Ivan, Maidstone, Kent

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