Empty chairs

Over the years I have been drawn to empty chairs.  It is a small, but persistent, aspect of my photographic perception which I’ve never bothered to try to fully understand.  But many times when I come across an empty or discarded chair, seat or bench, I reach for the camera.  Something powerful draws me in. Something there in the emptiness cries out to be captured.

It is, in fact, the emptiness from which power emanates. But with a strange twist. The picture has power because something is wrong; the power is missing. Like an amputated limb, the scene is incomplete. A chair, after all, is for sitting. For a person to sit in. Yet there is no person. Instead there is a void seated where the person should be. And yet the tableau attracts me.  Like the amputee’s phantom limb the person may no longer be there but still, somehow, his presence is palpable.

Maybe what attracts me to them is a desire to be in the picture. I see an opportunity to fit in. Not so much because I (Nate) want to have my portrait taken but because I want to fill the gap. I am uncomfortable with such lack.  Because people usually ‘sit’ for a portrait and because there is no sitting person, the empty chair calls out ‘fill me’. I’ve taken thousands of portraits as a photographer and it is fair to say that people have been my favourite subject. So, to come across a scene in which the person is missing, there only by inference, is, for me compelling.

If walls could talk, the saying goes.

Some of the best pictures tell stories. And these empty chairs suggest countless tales. Who was sitting there just now?  Why did he leave? Is she planning to come back? When did she buy those chairs that now are being thrown out? How did that leg break? Was it in a fight or did the kids sit back on it one too many times? Did that bring mom to tears? Was she a pretty mom? Was the person sitting in that chair in the waiting room nervous or angry?

It’s not just the possible stories. I find empty chairs rather sad. They evoke deep feelings of loneliness, expectation, disappointment, longing and failure.  Two or more chairs gathered together seem to signal that there were once good conversations and friends here once but not now.

Here are a few of my favourite empty chair pictures from over the years.


The one that started this fascination off. A kite shop in Azad Kashmir (Pakistan) seems lonely with the proprietor missing from the red chair.

A pair of dining chairs tossed out with the old fridge. Toorak. Sad.

On the Mornington Peninsula, a council bench invites early morning walkers to come and check out the gorgeous scene.

These two chairs seem lost in the vastness and cold bureaucracy of a government department waiting room in AusAID. Can’t you see a couple of petitioners huddled together whispering anxiously?


The race is over but the judge’s chair remains. Melbourne.

Where did the family with the children who left a balloon behind fly to? Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok.

I can hear the laughter of the three men who recently sat here, shooting the autumn breeze. Rawalpindi.


Will today be a good day for business? Will all these chairs fill up with hungry customers? Canberra


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