Reunions: A British Photographer’s Fascinating Nostalgia Project

In the early eighties, Chris Porsz was working as a hospital porter in his hometown of Peterborough, 75 miles north of London. The photos he took at the time ‘by pointing a camera at society’ were of life and people on the streets of the town. In 2009, a local newspaper expressed interest in the photos and Chris decided to track down his original subjects in order to recreate those scenes from the past. That was the genesis of ‘Reunions’, a book of riveting ‘Then and Now’ photos and stories.

Here is Chris talking about ‘Reunions’: how it became a reality and why it’s a photography project that transcends boundaries.

I think of Reunions as a labor of love…

I call it that that because it was so personal and important for me find out what happened to my characters. They were random strangers with no contact details but determination and an unshakable belief that I had something special and unique in photography just drove me on.

I made slow progress over seven years of searching. There were plenty of false leads – people did not reply or failed to turn up, some were no longer friends, had moved towns, left the country, or sadly passed away.

In some cases, I found people by million to one coincidences through my job as a paramedic. Once I attended an emergency call at 3 am and after treatment, the man said I had taken a picture of him and his housemates in a derelict house over thirty years ago. I thought I had won the lottery!

I had tremendous community backing but it was still difficult trying to fit in my day job with 18 hour days on FB and up to eight reunions in a week. I posted constant appeals on social media and that helped me treble my output in a few months to a final 134 sets.

How people reacted to the idea of ‘reuniting’ for the project

Some were reluctant or declined initially but were eventually persuaded to participate. It was refreshing when others just leapt at the chance. There were disappointments but the successes kept me going.

For the ones who did participate, it was wonderful to witness the reunions. There were emotions, tears, hugs and kisses. Some friends and siblings who had fallen out started talking again and it even led to a school reunion. It was often bittersweet where characters had died young and their parents got to see images they never knew existed. In some of these cases, family members stood in to make the book a permanent tribute to their loved ones and to happier times.

Insights I now have on people and relationships after this project

I think my book says a lot about the human condition and how the passage of time affects us all in so many different ways. It also shows how important our families, friends, health, education, work and social class are in shaping our lives. My images can only show the physical changes but the stories that accompany them in ‘Reunions’ are testimonies of resilience and perseverance . Despite difficult starts and limited opportunities, many have turned their lives around and achieved great things.

On ‘Then and Now’ photography and the magic of nostalgia

When I took my original images I never imagined anyone would be interested in them and my little time capsule was largely buried and forgotten. People respond strongly to nostalgia – of old shops, technology and the physical effects of time on our lives. This universal appeal explains why people everywhere connected with the idea of ‘Reunions’. It was about the concept rather than the location. They also appreciated its multi-cultural feel and positive messages – of hope and people rubbing shoulders and getting on. I am the son of Polish migrants and my mother is a Holocaust survivor. I see this project as my little antidote in these more troubled and divided times.

A sampling of Reunions from Chris’s book

No back brake (Original – 1980; Reunion – May 2010)

Tim Goodman was a 12-year-old boy when Chris took a picture of him on his bike talking to a policeman on Bridge Street, Peterborough in 1980. Tim grew up in the city and spent his childhood cycling around the streets. He said: “I’m not sure what the policeman was saying to me but I imagine he may have been ticking me off about cycling on the path.”

Tim, who left school at 16, is now married with six children and a successful businessman in Peterborough. The policeman, David Harvey, was a probationary constable in his first year, walking the city centre on the beat at the time. He retired in 2009 after 30 years in the police force, having worked his way up to Chief Superintendent for Cambridgeshire, the county in which Peterborough is located.

Tim Goodman Original

Tim Goodman Reunion

Teds (Original – 1980; Reunion – 2010)
Former Teddy boys (a youth subculture inspired by Edwardian styles) – Alan Medler (to the left) and Peter Yates – were a little unsure about being photographed in their older, balding avatars. Back in 1980, the pair were snapped outside the Queensgate Shopping Centre in Peterborough with frilly shirts, fancy jackets, quiffs and impressive belts. The men remained good friends until Alan, who went on to marry and have three children, died in March 2012. His brother Tony can be seen in the background of the original photo.

Teds Original

Teds Reunion

County school girls (Original – 1979; Reunion June 2016)
Sandra Williams, Carmen Chin and Maureen Mayers were friends from County Grammar School in Peterborough, but lost touch over the years. “Carmen was my best friend and lived on my road, so we were always together,” said Sandra, who is now married with four children and a stepdaughter. She works as a passenger assistant for disabled children as well as in a coffee shop.

Carmen and Maureen are also married with four children each. Maureen, who lives in Peterborough had broken her right arm when the original photo was taken and hid it behind her back. She said, “We’d had freezing cold weather and we were playing tag and I slipped over on the ice.”

County School Girls - Original

County School Girls - Reunion

Five boys running (Original – 1980; Reunion – June 2016)
Andy Jackson, Richard Hillson, Devinder Singh, Tony James and Aaron Meadows were about 15 years old in the original picture and running to play arcade games at the A&B record store during their lunch break. Andy, married for 21 years and with a daughter, said, “I remember playing the arcade game Phoenix, which involved birds hatching out of eggs.”

Andy went into the army after leaving school and now works for the Royal Mail near Peterborough. Richard is an electrician in Peterborough and is married with two boys. He said, “There were only about 70 of us in our school year and we were all really close, they were happy times.” Tony James works as a stone cutter and has two children and Aaron now works at Ikea and is married with three boys. Devinder moved to Yorkshire in 1986 and is now married with two boys and works for a housing association. The boys have now organized a school reunion and plan to keep in touch.

Five Boys Running - Original

Five Boys Running - Reunion

Chris Porsz is a street photographer based in the UK. You can read more about ‘Reunions’ and his other work here.

Photos help us capture moments in time. At ScanCafe, we pride ourselves on the work we do in digitizing photos and preserving memories. This feature is part of an effort to highlight unusual photography and memory projects around the globe.