I spoke to him about his "Taxi" project, pregnant women doing runners on him and the passengers who, inexplicably, would offer him ketamine while he was driving.
You meet all sorts of people driving a taxi. It's the nature of the job. If you don't meet lots of people, it's a pretty good sign that you're doing something wrong and should probably reconsider the choices you've made.
Mike Harvey is a man from South Wales who started driving a taxi to fund his trips around the world. A few months ferrying lots of people in and out of Swansea; a couple of months in Brazil. Half a year meeting lots more people on the night shift; three months touring Egypt, or India, or Nepal.
In 2010, Mike started to document some of his taxi journeys, building a rapport with passengers, taking their photo at the final destination and waiving the fee as a thank you. He stopped taxi driving a year or so ago, but has compiled his favourite portraits from the project – all named after the price of the journey, and all unique, intimate insights into the social makeup of South Wales – and is currently exhibiting them at the Monkey Cafe & Bar in Swansea.
I met with Mike yesterday for a chat.
VICE: Hi Mike. Why did you start taking photos of your passengers?
Mike Harvey: I just found the job so fascinating. I never knew who was going to get into my taxi next – I'd learn so much from the passengers because there were so many predicaments I was put in. So I got a DSLR and started taking photos. I wanted the pictures to represent the journeys we'd shared, because the taxi was occupied by so many people throughout that period.
Were most people happy to have their photo taken?
Well, I documented roughly 130 journeys altogether, and I'd say only nine people said no. I'd always do it at the end of the journey, so we'd have built a rapport by then. I see it as one of the best educational experiences of my life, really, because whether it was giving someone CPR by the side of the road, a pregnant woman running away from my taxi, not paying, barefooted...
What happened there?
I was driving out of Swansea at about 3AM, and this girl who was full-term pregnant – you know, ready to go – was sat at the side of the road, barefoot, flagging me down. So she got in and... it's a bit of an impromptu counselling service sometimes, driving a taxi. I said that maybe getting hammered when you're pregnant isn't such a good idea, but, you know, we had a nice chat. Then, when I dropped her off, she legged it. I'd usually chase after someone, but she was fully pregnant, you know? She was the one that got away, but I let her get away.
People would also offer me drugs – ketamine. I mean, I don't do drugs anyway, but who does ketamine when they're driving?
People who want to cause pile-ups? Was that instead of money, or just to party?
Just as an aside. You know, "Do you mind us doing coke in the back, drive?" People would proposition threesomes, foursomes... it was a constant source of entertainment. Also, because some people were inebriated, they'd divulge a lot of their life to you, telling you about affairs they were having, problems in their life, that they were considering suicide. So you'd have to try and give them as best of a reflective time as possible in the taxi so they didn't reach the wrong conclusions about stuff.
How did that affect you? I'd imagine you have some idea of what you're getting into when you start driving a taxi, but not that people will be sitting in your back seat saying, "I want to commit suicide."
I don't think I did know what I was getting into, to be honest. I remember my first taxi journey being a very nervous one, because I was always very concerned about crashing and the passenger getting injured. I always felt very responsible, and I think that responsibility lent itself to situations where people would start to divulge stuff like that. I wasn't fazed by it – I just wanted to help people in whichever way I could. The funny thing is, most of these people I've never seen again – some of the people I've spoken to and hopefully helped, I don't know where they are now.
Are there any journeys that stand out to you as particularly meaningful?
There was one when I found somebody who'd just been knocked over. I gave them CPR, but they didn't make it. That was an unusual experience – quite harrowing, really. On the other side of things, the company I worked at used to have a contract with the local brothel, so it was always fascinating giving the working girls their lifts home. I got to know some of them quite well, so they'd be like, "Busy night tonight, Mike?" And I never knew whether I could ask the same question back.
Did you learn anything about your hometown that you didn't know before?
I could probably pinpoint specific things if I thought about it more, but I think, overall, it just gave me a wider appreciation of the way people live – the things they think about, the interests they have, the worries they have. The conclusion I came to is that everybody is essentially the same – they all have their worries and hang-ups, no matter who they are.
Do you think driving a taxi made you more observant? Able to pick up on personalities quicker than you had before?
Yeah – a mixture of taxi driving and then going somewhere like Delhi or Kathmandu, and then thinking back to Swansea. I think it definitely made me look at people a lot more closely, but then I've always been an observer of people anyway. I think that's what drew me to this project, and why I love taxi driving so much.
Do you think you learned any wider lessons about humanity?
Not to put a negative spin on it, but there are people who are nice out there, and also people who aren't so nice.
Did you have much trouble?
Hardly ever. Although, there was one guy in the back of my cab having a heated argument with a girl – I assumed it was his girlfriend – and he started headbutting her. I was like, "Guys, this has to stop, or I'm going to have to drive to the police station."
The guy then turned his attention to me, trying to grab me round the neck and going, "Stop the car, stop the car." So we stopped, then he got out and was preparing to drag me out, so I just drove off. The girl was in the back, crying her eyes out. I said, "Are you OK for me to just drive and drop you home?" And she was like, "Yes, please don't stop."
That was a very rare occasion, though, to be fair.
Finally, am I right in thinking that you weren't going to show these? That it was just going to be a personal project?
Yeah. They were all sitting on a hard drive for years, and it was my partner Tim who said, "You should really let people see them." I wouldn't mind extending the project now. I'd love to do it in other locations, if I could manage to find a cab driver who'd allow me to drive around with them and take photos of the passengers, just to show other cultures in a similar space.
Yeah, the space plays a big part in the photos – it's very intimate.
It's very close for a stranger, yeah. I used to just say, "Relax, be yourselves – you don't have to smile or anything." It sounds really cheesy and cliched, but I did see some of the real vulnerability in people's eyes, or was able to get a sense of their nature from their eyes and their expressions. And I love that.
Another thing about the space is what you can see outside the window – the socioeconomic side of it. Because the photos were always taken at the end of the journey, so more often than not they would capture where someone was from. I like that side of it, too.
And me. Thanks very much, Mike.
The "Taxi" exhibition is currently running at the Monkey Cafe & Bar, 13 Castle Street, Swansea.
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