Life on Hold: A Photographer Explores What It Means to Wait

One day, while photographer Jason Larkin was driving around Johannesburg, South Africa, he noticed a sight that made him pause. On the side of the road was a man waiting at a bus stop, shading himself behind the narrow shadow of the sign. Larkin stopped, chatted with the man a bit, took his photograph and went on his way.

It wasn’t until later, when he developed the film, that a larger narrative began to take shape from the image. For him, the waiting man was a symbol of the way South Africa’s history has shaped modern life in Johannesburg.

He says that “it was very much an idea around the movement of people—and thinking about the legacy of Johannesburg and the apartheid. I wanted to explore the idea of people having to wait for an inefficient transport system that is in place because of past geographical zoning.”

Larkin felt like he had found a visual concept that he wanted to keep pursuing. But not unlike the man waiting at the bus stop, he had a number of limitations and hurdles in his way. He wanted to keep looking for people hiding in shadows, with their faces partially obscured. The first year Larkin worked on the project “Waiting,” he was only able to make a small handful of portraits.

“What I realized was that there were people waiting for all sorts of reasons. Waiting for money, waiting for customers, waiting for food, waiting for a friend … even something as minor as that,” Larkin says.

Not only did Larkin have a limited time of year to make these portraits, he also had a very short window during the day when the light created the right effect. “At midday, the sun is at a right angle to the ground so you get a very shallow shadow. To have the slightest of shadows was a more visually interesting picture to me. Normally when you look at a portrait you’ll see the eyes and feel this kind of connection through the eyes, but you don’t have that because this shadow gets in the way and breaks this connection.”

Over time, the project became less about the story of post-apartheid Johannesburg and more about the idea of waiting, and the disparity of wait times for people in different parts of the world and different social classes.

“It was this interesting play of what we see and don’t see … having these people who have put themselves in the shadows is a larger metaphor for people being left in the shadows and being left behind. You know, Johannesburg has an amazing story, South Africa has an amazing story, but there are lots of people that are being left behind.”

Larkin says that when he has shown the work to people, “everybody has a different tale of seeing someone wait, and how that situation made them realize how little they wait, or how frustrated they get when they wait, and feeling empathy towards those who do wait. In the West we don’t think about waiting because we fill our time with other things. Our lives are streamlined and efficient so we tend to feel like we shouldn’t have to wait for anything.”

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