How your life story is told by your hands

By Paul Kerley
BBC News Magazine

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionHands of impressionist Alistair McGowan

What can hands tells you about someone? Tim Booth has been photographing fingers, palms, nails and knuckles for more than 20 years. He says they can reveal much more about a person than you might think.

"When we look at a face we immediately make preconceptions," he says. "Labels are added because of how someone looks. But when we look close up at hands we don't do that."

Dorset-based Booth says the photographs in his new book, A Show of Hands, "focus on people whose hands are a key part of what they do - not just a cerebral connection, but a physical one too."

And it was this next image of his grandmother, taken two decades ago, which inspired him.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionTim Booth's grandmother - Molly Booth

Resting on an almost invisible stick - with her wedding ring glinting - her arthritic hands are curled and knotted like plant roots.

"That was the seed," says Booth.

"I think she would be pleased that she was the inspiration for the book, but she hated the photo."

The next image is of a ferryman, Charlie Baker, who rowed across the Thames in south-west London for 56 years.

"He died a while back. But we worked out he'd rowed to Singapore and back in his lifetime.

"He's holding these huge oars, but actually had quite tiny hands."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionFerryman Charlie Baker

Some of Booth's hands belong to people with more familiar faces.

His photo of the rugby player Jonny Wilkinson is simple, clean and almost heart-shaped.

"He told me quite clearly that rugby is not about your feet, it's about your hands," says Booth.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionRugby player Jonny Wilkinson

The next image features "huge sausage hands, which are filthy dirty and crusted in salt crystals".

They belong to Dave Sales, a lobster fisherman from West Bay near Bridport in Dorset.

"It is reminiscent of the old days," says Booth. "When you pulled miles of rope a day, pulling up your pots until your hands bled. It was really hard graft."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionLobster fisherman Dave Sales

Booth says it took him a long time to find a former coalminer to photograph - but John Matthews was a great discovery.

"He had some fascinating stories from the mines - how he was squeezed into tight spaces with inches to spare above his head, and people dying at his side."

The hands are shaped so the gap between them looks like the mouth of a cave - and the small dark flecks under the skin are tiny chips of coal.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionFormer coalminer John Matthews

Another difficult but rewarding search resulted in this next photograph of Betty Bull.

"She was a milkmaid," says Booth. "She had to carry heavy yokes supporting four-gallon steel pails from the age of 14."

She is now retired and her cottage is full of cow memorabilia.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionFormer milkmaid Betty Bull

"I didn't know there were horseback archers," says Booth of the next image which features the arm and hand of Tom Drury.

"They gallop bareback and fire three arrows at a target."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionHorseback archer Tom Drury

Staying with the equine theme, the next photos features the hands of horse trainer Connie Colfox - and the face of her horse Wendy.

Her right hand is across the bridge of Wendy's muzzle, while the left is cupped around the mouth.

"Hands are a vital communication tool when working with horses," says Booth. "Arguably more than the voice."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionHands of horse trainer Connie Colfox

Booth says he was taken out by Jo Webb to find dry stone walls she had built or repaired.

"It's like having your hands sanded each day - but you have to feel the stone and gloves wouldn't work.

"I hadn't really understood how creative it is. She told me you pick up a rock and you instinctively know where it should go. You become part of the walls."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionDry stone waller Jo Webb

To call Jodie Kidd simply a supermodel is a bit unfair - says Booth. "She is so much more than that - a real country girl who rides, plays polo and drives racing cars."

There are two images of Kidd - one shows strength as she grips a polo mallet.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionSupermodel Jodie Kidd

The other is gentler - more like an image from a model photo shoot.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionSupermodel Jodie Kidd

The next photo is of percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie - who is deaf.

"The fact that she is a musician speaks volumes about how much more her hands are than a couple of shovels," Booth explains.

"Her hands are her ears and her voice. It just goes to show that ears aren't all they are cracked up to be."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionPercussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie

The next pair of artistic hands belong to ballerina Deborah Bull, who was Principal at the Royal Ballet between 1992 and 2001.

With the veins pumped up after a practice, they look like working hands - and not perhaps like those of a ballerina.

Booth says it shows that "ballet is not just about the feet, but about the whole body. Hands complete the line from toes to fingertips."

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionBallerina Deborah Bull

The final image - like the first - is of impressionist and comedian Alistair McGowan.

It was shot on a bench in a square in central London.

McGowan told Booth he had first become aware of his hands when he did an impression of the former football manager Glenn Hoddle - and someone pointed out to him the accurate mimicry of his hand actions.

image copyrightTim Booth
image captionImpressionist Alistair McGowan


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