Matthew Thompson – The Constant Tourist

May 28, 2015 – Culture, People

To the bane of every would-be free-spirited photography graduate- Matthew Thompson seems to live the dream. A voyeur life of exploration and engaging encounters; Thompson has seen his photography take him all over the world with the help of commissions with Aer Lingus and Phillips, just to name two. A man that dances around the pit of cliché tourist pictures, all while spewing underlying social and political questions hidden in our cities, that we so often take for granted.

Coming from a nepotistic background in graphic design; Thompson would later quit to chase a photography career following a nomination for the Guardian’s ‘Documentary Photographer of the Year’. Since then he’s become renowned for combining street/cityscapes with portraits when documenting the places he ends up in, which ultimately takes on a far more cinematic approach than your average postcard.

I grab a coffee with him in Indigo & Cloth, Dublin.

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‘A lot of the stuff is very conceptual’ he replies when I ask about his work process. ‘For example with this project, I went to the Alte Pinakothek which is the history museum in Munich, I was suppose to do a documentary piece on the the museum but instead I actually got the audio guide. I wanted to understand how we empathise with people and how we translates peoples’ words into pictures and how we connect with them. And so I punch in the audio tour number and get the description of a painting and I gave myself 20 minutes to find an aspect of that painting in the city. Whether it’s a person or object, as you begin to become conditioned by what you hear you start seeing things, it starts putting pictures in your mind. Like when one of the topics was temptation you start finding it around the city, whether that’s a porn shop or someone taking a drag from someone else’s cigarette. So you kind of simplify and find out what’s real’.

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Sometimes being given too much scope for projects makes the job even harder, so Thompson almost intentionally gives himself restrictions to help polarise possibilities or locations to shoot. During a commission he did to shoot a factory in Mongolia, he talks about how he came across similar freedoms that he had to refine; ‘you say to yourself ‘how can I make this industrial place look beautiful’. What are notions of beauty and you find something beautiful in a human hand and you go ‘that’s what the shoot is about’ – but you don’t really need to tell a client that’. It’s Thompson’s drive for finding human touches that really brings life to the concrete and steel settings.


‘It’s all about nurturing relationships where people trust you. Because I came from a graphic design background, in a way you know you have to do belt and braces – I have to go and photograph the clichés, but you try to do them in the best way you can. Then you go and try and de-emphasise them.’

Often sent out to shoot iconic cities across the world with clients like Aer Lingus, he remembers one specific lecture where he was told ‘everything’s been done before, but you haven’t done it before. You have to photograph your experience of that place. Don’t think ‘what is the ultimate experience of this place’, it should be more like ‘how do I feel in that place”.

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As a constant tourist, trying to photograph a fleeting emotion, I asked how difficult it was to shoot Dublin, a far more familiar and memory filled city – ‘it’s funny, it’s the hardest place to shoot.’. There’s a stereotype of the simpletons in Dublin and of Ireland and this is what drew his attention. ‘I don’t like to say this but I often react against what I hate’. He wanted to show Trinity’s library or what it’s like to walk along the cobblestones, ‘when people aren’t drunk’, he adds with a laugh. To aim to show the complexities of Dublin often overlooked and to vent at how underestimated Dublin is. It was the same driving force behind his previous project involving constantly changing portraits plastered onto a wall in Temple Bar, constantly changing perceptions of a romanticised Ireland and it’s people.

‘By doing it [photographing Dublin] the camera really forced me to re-see the city. I hadn’t been looking at Dublin. I’ve just been going job to job and increasingly a lot more abroad and in fact Dublin’s awesome.’

When it comes to Thompson’s selection of faces and people from each city he tends to have such varying kinds of people involved. For his Irish projects for example he’s gone from the likes of Danielle Ryan from Roads, Ángel Luis González Fernández from The Library Project to models and chefs around the city. ‘There’s certain faces that you know that are photogenic. That could be someone from 16 through to 84, it’s a very broad spectrum. It’s also about how they read your body language. You should be warm and explain it’s for a magazine or whatever, and you’re on your own and I’m, like, really short, so it’s not very intimidating. Then you show your interest in them. You don’t say ‘you have an interesting face’, you say ‘your shoes are great’ or that the location is really cool. You talk about the photograph, you don’t talk about them. It de-emphasises the scrutiny you’re putting them under.’

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The way in which Thompson tackles capturing a place is very not just capturing the moment or the buildings made by the past but when photographing people, especially the do-ers and shapers, he’s essentially photographing the future of the city too. These are the people that will decide what the city is to become, and if you are to visit, they will decide your stay. ‘I’m normally not commissioned for half the work I do’ he says while he shows me a portrait shot in a room above us in Indigo & Cloth accompanied by a streetscape shot. ‘They didn’t ask me for any sort of streetscape, but that streetscape is as informative to me as the portrait is. He’s from that space. And I always find that a streetscape will help form the colour pallet for that portrait. The visual language is kind of echoed.’

Just like his tactic for documenting cities, he believes his portraits need to equally be in the now, in the moment. Even without intention, the location and the city will frame the portrait itself, regardless of what is actually visible in the image. His great talent is essentially just allowing the city to shoot through him. ‘So if we went to New York and took 53 portraits of New Yorkers, it would be equally a portrait of New York as much as images of skyscrapers would be’.

Azzy O’Connor @azzyoc