The People's Taxis
by Nicholas Allen
The images that form Patrick McCoy's The People's Taxis were originally produced as part of the photographer's degree show. The fourteen photographs that I saw from this collection all took for their immediate subject matter the passengers of the Falls Road Taxi Association in West Belfast. Known locally as 'Black Taxis', McCoy's own notes tell us that the Association, to which the drivers are affiliated, was founded in 1973. Later it was joined by ex- internees who found it difficult to gain employment on release. The Black Taxis still service West Belfast today, just as their Protestant counterparts journey to their separate areas. This culturally charged background provided part of the initial interest for McCoy in his subject. The point for McCoy of photographing these taxis (and the people in them) is corrective. As the photographer's notes tell us, the taxis provide for an understanding of Belfast that need not resort "to the stock cliched images of graffiti daubed walls, political murals and British army foot patrols". Furthermore, McCoy hoped his project would prove to be an "antidote to the spectacular images produced by visiting foreign photojournalists".
From these comments it would be easy to approach the images with the fear that they will be worthy, if not insightful, and documentary rather than perceptive. In the desire to record life as it really is the danger of succumbing to cliche is ever strong. It is to McCoy's credit, and indeed a hint of his promise, that he avoids the trap of reaction, never in the fourteen images presented shackling himself to the political contingencies of presenting his people as only an insider can.
Instead McCoy presents us with the fidget, the squash and the boredom of travel in the taxis. 'Black Taxis' act as a kind of bus service and passengers share the cab along its route. Thus the photographs of the journeys can be separated into series as different people crowd in over time. By this device the photographer is able to access the language of their interaction, a process in which he is himself involved. Two memorable images start with the picture of a woman holding a child while another woman sits beside her oblivious of the camera. In the subsequent image the passengers have been joined by a third older female whose arrival means the girl must move over. The child responds and splays her leg over the original passenger as if reluctant to give up her space. The woman glances at this intrusion as the girl now stares at the camera. The girl can't see the disapproval behind her and will never know what we think behind the camera. But this is exactly the point where the collection speaks most fluently, finding tension in the ordinary, freeing a moment that happens many times a day but is never noticed in this way. This is ironic. McCoy's study of everyday life is after all most insightful when he wrests such life from its usual contexts.
This might suggest that in appreciating McCoy's work as a form of record we have been fooled. The wit evident in his photographs is one example of the ways in which his images deconstruct any romantic belief in the wartorn North. The rear windows of the cabs provide a constant commentary on this aspect of the work as they hint at a world outside the confines of the taxi. Granted in one of these images a tricolour can be seen and in another an army watch tower. But equally there are trees and most playfully of all the arm of a pram poking up into view from the boot. In these subtle moments McCoy's appreciation of humour comes closest to achieving his declared intention of representing an experience of Belfast. I do not mean by this that Northerners have any predisposition to wit but rather that McCoy taps into an idiom of physical expression in his images. In doing so the photographs leave us in a place of paradox, inviting us into an edgy, aggressive, communal space best represented by the picture of the two kids in football shirts playfully covering their faces for unknown intentions.
What McCoy presents us with is not a record of experience but with a series of keys to an understanding of the physical language by which that experience is made. The best image of the collection is that of a sole figure practically horizontal in his seat, stretching to his back pocket to get change for the fare. A small moment sublimely captured, the vacant look on the subject's face as he fiddles for forty pence is an image of perfection. The strength of The Peoples' Taxis is in moments such as these, moments where you can feel the photographer's presence even as his subjects forget. A promising and strong collection.