The Man I Didn’t Know

In late June 2020 the Brent Alpha topside oil platform was to be transported on the Iron Lady cargo barge into the mouth of the River Tees. The platform was on route to the Able UK Seaton Port for decommissioning.

The 17,000 tonne oil platform was transported to an area off the Hartlepool coast by the largest heavy lift vessel ever built, Pioneering Spirit. It had arrived from the Shell Brent oil field which is situated 115 miles north-east of Lerwick in Scotland.

After arriving off the coast of Hartlepool the platform was then transferred to the barge to be towed into the mouth of the River Tees. Once at the Able UK site Brent Alpha would be broken down with some parts being re-sold and the rest scrapped and re-cycled.

I was on assignment for Getty Images to cover the arrival and I had headed to an area called South Gare which is a man-made stretch of land jutting out into the North Sea that protects the entrance to the River Tees.

As I walked around looking for different angles to frame pictures of the rig and barge as it slowly glided towards the entrance to the river I shot a couple of frames of a couple who were sat having a picnic seemingly unaware of this huge rig looming closer behind them.

After I shot those frames I walked past them and mentioned the oil rig was coming and after the briefest of chats I walked on and continued my work.

Jumping forward to last week I received an email. The lady who wrote the email informed me that a man she knew and who was a good friend had died.

The man was called Tyll van de Voort and he was the man I had photographed with the oil rig behind him.

His wife Sybille had seen their picture after it had been used in a piece in the Observer newspaper. After he died it had come to mean a great deal to her and the lady who contacted me wondered if there was any way to get hold of a digital copy of the picture that she could print it and present to her friend as a gift.

I of course agreed immediately as I assume any photographer would so I went into my archive to locate the picture so that I could send it over. As I was looking at it I thought the man looked familiar. So searching through a long-term project I’m working on about the South Gare area I came across a portrait of Tyll that I had taken the previous year.

He visited South Gare often with Sybille and he had chosen one morning to go for a sea swim. The work I’m documenting in the area often means I approach people and ask to take their portraits. This is what I did with Tyll and after a bit of a chat and agreeing to pose for a picture he headed off for his swim.

It made a nice portrait and it became one of the pictures I have included in my pictures of the area so far.

I subsequently sent that picture as well to the lady who had contacted me in addition to the oil rig picnic picture as I thought and based on what she had said that this image might be a better representation of this man I didn’t know.

The email reply I received was really nice and it was incredibly satisfying to see that the picture of Tyll going for a swim had brought happiness to those who knew him at such a difficult time.

To be told by someone who knows the subject of your picture well that it has caught and shows the character and the personality of a person exactly as they remember them is one of the best compliments you can receive as a photographer.

So what is the point of this blog post? I don’t know really. But as we all begin a second lockdown on our journey through this pandemic it’s just a nice thing to happen and it’s a reminder about the strength that photography can have and how a photograph can form part of the legacy of someone who you don’t even know.

I’ll leave the final word to the lady who emailed me who sums it up well: “This has also made me remember the power of art, and that in some intangible way that there is something special in the world even in these strange, strange times at the moment”.

Tyll van de Voort

Images (c) Ian Forsyth

See more of my work in my galleries & blog at Room 2850

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No usage without arrangement.

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