Chris Porsz: The man behind the lens

Chris Porsz

Peterborough paramedic and photographer Chris Porsz hit headlines around the world when his first series of ‘Reunion’ pictures – recreating some of his street photography from the 80s with the same subjects decades later – went viral. Many of these people and pictures have become emblematic of life in our city and have embedded themselves in the public imagination – but just who is Chris Porsz, and how does he feel about becoming a regional treasure? The Moment spoke to him to find out...

It feels as though we’re far more familiar with your pictures than we are with you – the man who made them all happen. Do you think your personality is a part of these pictures – that we can tell more about you than we might think by looking at them?
I think, maybe! And that extends from my career as a paramedic, because a huge part of the job was about communicating with people and understanding them, caring for and reassuring them. So, I think the photography complements that well, and also it’s about responding to the moment, grabbing it before it’s gone and thinking on your feet – expect the unexpected!

Chris Porsz

Chris Porsz

How does your process of taking pictures – and then of creating books, projects, exhibitions – work?
I’ve got a great local graphic designer, Chris Lane, who came on board when I decided to self-publish, but a lot of it is just walking the miles, really – just getting out there and taking pictures, find something different and capture it in your own style. Part of the magic is meeting those people by chance, I didn’t know many of them beforehand, and I’d often find a great story as well.

There was also a period when I stopped altogether, around 1986. Then in 2009 I sent some pictures to the local paper and ended up getting a regular column, called ‘Paramedic Paparazzo’. It rekindled that long-lost passion, and then I discovered digital, which was amazing! It was a lot to do with the column that people were able to contact me again, years after I took their picture. That was a real light bulb moment in terms of beginning to pull the ‘Reunions’ books and exhibitions together.

What are some of the stand-out moments for you?
I’m often asked, how do I find people? Social media has helped a lot, but sometimes I just get really lucky. One moment in particular stands out – decades ago I took a picture of about four or five lads messing about in a derelict house in Cromwell Road, taken in 1981. About 30 years later, at 3 o’clock in the morning we received a ‘999’ call – and just by chance I was on nights. I knocked on the door and a man answered – he was basically in the middle of having a heart attack. I treated him, gave him oxygen, and he started improving. When we were on the way to the hospital in the ambulance, he said, ‘You took my picture 30 years ago,’ and I thought, ‘Wow!’ I felt like I’d won the lottery! He remembered having the picture taken, but the picture had been published a couple of times in my column as well, so he may well have seen it there and been reminded. That encounter, after a ‘999’ call, led to that Reunion.

Who are your influences and inspirations, in terms of photography?
I’m very inspired by photojournalists, people like Don McCullin. I took pictures of the age of protests: anti- racist marches, NHS protests. I would tend to look for ordinary, everyday people, but also people who stood out from the crowd, like the punks and the Teddy boys.

Chris PorszOne of your recent projects has been going coast-to-coast in America and documenting the journey – can you tell us a bit about that?
I’d been before – just to New York and Florida – and New York is a great place to take pictures, it’s a crazy city, obviously! I did a 50-day road trip from San Francisco to New York and bits in between using a combination of Amtrak trains, Greyhound coaches and lots of walking, and I was very conscious that I won’t always be able to do this [Chris is 70] so I’ve got to seize the moment. It was quite a surreal experience at times – I got off the plane in San Francisco, got
on a horrible downtown train, which was filthy, and right behind me was a man clearly off his head, shouting: ‘I want to stab somebody, I want to stab somebody!’ All the locals had already got off by this point, but he got this big, red pair of scissors out of his bag and just totally destroyed the seats – there was stuffing everywhere.

Being out on the streets was a real eye- opener, because of the Fentanyl crisis – obviously we have our problems here, but we still do have something of a safety net left, but they have practically no welfare state. The homeless there are lying in the gutters, unconscious, covered in festering sores, surrounded by excrement – and on the door of every other shop there’s an armed security guard. In Hollywood, on Oscars night – on the sidewalk there’s this tent city and on the other side you’ve got the red carpet…

How did the photography start, for you?
In the early 70s, my then-girlfriend Lesley and I hitchhiked across Europe and North Africa – 6000 miles in about three weeks, it was a crazy journey!

We got to Algeria and there was a camel in a field – I had a Kodak Instamatic, took the picture, got chased by a farmer, got back to England and had it developed… and it was rubbish! I thought, ‘I can do better than this,’ so I did a bit of research, practised by taking pictures of my family, of Lesley (who I had married) and our kids, Emma, Adam and Simon.

I had previously dropped out of studying social work at Sheffield Polytechnic – I wasn’t really engaged by writing long essays about statistics and economics, and I felt it would be easier and more effective for me to pick up my camera and reflect society, and the truth of society, in that way. I came back to Peterborough and worked as a hospital porter, which stood me in good stead for working as a paramedic later. I would go around the hospital between 1980 and 1985, taking pictures, and they formed the basis of my book, Just Be Kind.

That’s a great title for a book about a hospital!
They were my mother’s words. She was a Holocaust survivor; she lost her mother, father, sister and three-year- old niece – they were all murdered in Majdanek concentration camp. She was in the Polish resistance during the war, got captured and ended up in Ravensbruck, the women’s infamous camp in Berlin. Somehow, she survived and came out, emaciated. My father – a Polish paratrooper who was one of the troops liberating Europe – escaped from Poland and came to Britain in the late 1940s, after meeting my mother. I’m very proud of my Polish roots and the contribution Poles made to this country, and to Peterborough.

Reunions photography exhibition is running at Peterborough Museum until 23 March 2024. To find out more about access and opening times, visit or phone 01733 864663.

Five boys running (1980, 2016)

Five boys runningFive boys running Andy Jackson, Richard Hillson, Devinder Singh, Tony James and Aaron Meadows were 15 when this picture was taken, and were running to the chip shop during their school lunch break – and to sneak in a cheeky play on the arcade games at the A&B record shop!

Chris says: “The first picture taken in 1980 was one of one – but during the reunion I think I shot over 100 to get the recreation right! The young lad in the lead, Devinder, came to Peterborough all the way back from Bradford to do the shoot, because he felt it was so important to be involved, and for it to happen.”

Reunion kiss (1980 & 2009)

Reunion kissTony and Sally Wilmot were boyfriend and girlfriend when this picture was taken in 1980. They were completely unaware it was happening, only finding out 30 years later when it appeared in the local paper.

Reunion kissChris says: “This is the iconic ‘Reunions’ picture that went viral around the world. The couple are Tony and Sally – they’re both head teachers in Lichfield, and have two kids, Tom and Jenny, around the same age they were in the original picture. It’s very romantic and is one of the first ‘Reunion’ pictures I did. I tracked them down because I was being interviewed on local radio – and his brother phoned in to the show!”

Nobby (1980, 2015)

NobbyNobbyMichael Ross was a former head teacher who suffered a severe blow when he lost his house in a fire. His life sadly spiralled, and he ended up homeless and living on the streets in Peterborough. But the people of the city took him to their hearts and he became something of a local character: Nobby – as he was affectionately called – always had plenty to eat and was left presents at Christmas. He was even given a set of golf clubs, which he used by sneaking onto the local golf course!

Chris says: “Nobby’s house burned down then he lost his family, and ended up living in a bus shelter on Oundle Road for 15 years. I took the first picture of him on Cathedral Square in 1980, and 40 years later I found him again, by now living in sheltered housing – scrubbing up well and a lot happier.”

Carrot and Stick (1981 & 2021)

Carrot & StickCarrot & StickChris spotted Bernard Norman – who worked as CEO for Thomas Cook at the time – waiting for a train at Peterborough railway station and couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of the billboard illustration and Bernard’s head! When it came to recreating the photograph, the poster was long gone, but Four Acres of Thorney – who own five donkeys – were happy to step in.

Chris says: “I couldn’t track Bernard down for the first ‘Reunions’ book, but found him for the second thanks to social media. Obviously we couldn’t get a donkey on the railway station, but we found a field and Bernard turned up with a suit and tie – exactly the same kind of clothes he was wearing in 1981. He’s very modest and self-deprecating, and a great character.”

Scoop Purchase (1980, 2021)

Scoop PurchaseScoop PurchaseChris captured this image on Bridge Street outside a shoe shop, as two very young brothers attempt to feed each other chips. Matt and Mark Court grew up in Peterborough but since moved to Birmingham, where Mark (left) is a head teacher and Matt was a carpenter.

Chris says: “Very sadly, Matt died last year. Mark said it was the last photo they had taken together, and the picture was used at his funeral.”

92 Cromwell Road (1980 and 2013)

92 Cromwell Road92 Cromwell RoadZaroob was only three years old when Chris spotted him peering through a front gate and took an impromptu snap. How he rediscovered him for the reunion 33 years later is the most amazing story…

Chris says: “This is one of those real ‘goosebump’ moments. There was this young lad, a three-year-old looking through some slats of a gate. Thirty years later I got a 999 call – they could have got anybody, but got me by chance – to an Asian clothes shop on the same street, where a lady had fallen down some stairs (luckily it turned out she was okay). But I had that picture from my first book, New England, and I said to the shopkeeper, ‘I don’t suppose you know this boy, because I’ve been searching for years for him.’ He said, ‘I do, he lives down there, down Cromwell Road,’ and as his arm was raised to point, this man turned the corner, and as he got closer and closer the shopkeeper said, ‘That’s him!’ So, the man came into the shop and I showed him this picture of the three-year-old. He had a big smile on his face and said, ‘That’s me!’ And that led to the reunion!”

Lesley and Chris (1971 and 2021)

Lesley and ChrisLesley and ChrisThis is photographer Chris Porsz and his then-girlfriend Lesley just before they set out on an ambitious trip hitch-hiking across Europe and North Africa – 6,000 miles in three weeks! – aged just 20 and 18. The adventure didn’t end there, as Chris and Lesley got married in 1976 and remained happily together, and had three children: Simon, Adam and Emma. Sadly, Lesley passed away in 2022.

Chris says: “My new exhibition is a tribute to Lesley – she would have been very proud to see it. She was always very tolerant of me disappearing for hours and roaming the streets to capture my photos! There’s also a big mural of my 40 years at the NHS in Peterborough, of all I’ve seen and captured, at the local hospital and based on my book Just Be Kind. It’s a tribute to the nurses and the oncology department, to say thank you for all they did for Lesley and for getting us through Covid. I’ve been raising funds via my book sales, to go towards the oncology department at Peterborough Hospital and to Breast Cancer Research.”

Ford Cortina (1981, 2021)

Ford CortinaFord CortinaPaul Smith and photographer Chris Porsz worked as hospital porters at the same time as each other, at Peterborough District Hospital, and became friends. When Chris photographed
his stylish colleague on Cobden Street, he used a neighbour’s snazzy Ford Cortina as a prop.

Chris says: “We managed to get the same car, or at least the same make and model. When we did the reunion I said, ‘Paul, can you dress colourful?’ – and he certainly did!”

Fun at the Fair (1985, 2021)

Fun at the FairFun at the FairIn 1985, American-style proms were still far in the future, so Toni Cray, Teresa Weston and their friends all headed to the local funfair after their CSE/GCE exams – and still remember it as the time of their lives. “That night was so special,” says Toni. “I’m so pleased Chris zoomed in on us and took our photo.”

Chris says: “This picture is one of my favourites – they’re still so joyous and happy 40 years later. The great thing is this reunion brought them back together again – they hadn’t seen each other for years, they’d lost touch, but now they’re firm friends again.”

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