by Roland Ramanan 30th Oct 2015
This project centres around a vulnerable group of people in a corner of east London that is undergoing rapid change. Their story is a small one but indicative of the wider pressures on the marginalised in society of urban regeneration and changes to the welfare system.
Gillett Square in east London was born out of a genuinely consultative process and yet there are those with deep roots in the local area who miss the camaraderie of the old car park. Some are amongst the most vulnerable in the area and may have a history of alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness or mental illness.
Their encounters with police, social workers, housing officers and social welfare staff can be challenging on a daily basis. My encounters with the group have often been challenging but in the end rewarding, touching and instructive.
The sequence of these pictures attempts to show some of my journey in this process and challenge my own as well as the viewers perceptions. The project has been ongoing since 2012 and I have now started to develop individual stories, multi-media pieces, portraits and hopefully a book of snap shots exclusively for the residents. I have sequenced the pictures in a way that hopefully shows a development in my practice from looking solely at despair from the outside in to an attempt to show these people in a different light.
It wasn’t long after I started to get serious about street photography that I went to a workshop run by the wonderful Mimi Mollica who urged me (in a cockney Sicilian accent) to find “content” in my work, you must find “content”. A classic case of a photographer wandering around looking for a project. I lighted upon Gillett square because I knew it well from attending and playing at the Vortex jazz club situated there. Everytime I went I would pass by “unsavoury” street drinkers who hung out there and whom I normally gave a wide berth. Fuelled by Mimi’s words I decided to try and sit down next to them and ask them if they wouldn’t mind awfully if I took their picture for a “project”. I was quite terrified but full of fantasies about the kind of urban grittiness uncovered by my hero Eugene Richards but with no clue about the human reality of the people I was dealing with.
Those that were not openly hostile were initially perplexed.
“Are you the police?”
“Are you a journalist?”
“So what are you going to do with these pictures?”
“I’m not sure yet”
Suspicion from some turned to pity; they suggested useful leads in the local paper but they all agreed that the square was full of stories.
My real breakthrough came when some of the residents jokingly posed for a picture with their mates. When I returned the next weekend with 6 x 4 prints they were genuinely grateful. This has become a cottage industry (that I always pay for) with the regulars for the last three years. It is always moving to go to their homes and see my pictures on the wall. For some it is the only surviving pictures they have of themselves. Even more so when I am requested to provide pictures for a memorial service; many of the subjects live punishing fore-shortened lives. Like Graham who suffers from schizophrenia and committed suicide after being declared “fit for work” and facing eviction under new social welfare rules about having a spare bedroom. I am hoping to gather together these snap shots at some point into a Blurb book that I give back to the group in order that they can look back at themselves and old friends.
Through the last year or so, as I have learned and listened, I have shifted my focus from what happens between drinkers in the square to individual and more personal stories. In particular Nina, whom you can recognise from her strong Roma features, and her struggles to overcome drugs, alcohol and homelessness in order that she can finally be reunited with her daughter who can only visit occasionally. I have recorded audio interviews with some that reveal deeply personal trials and obstacles to be overcome. Changing encounters have led to changing and less literal photographs; an attempt to show some of the party spirit in the face of tough odds. A certain energy and defiance that is not captured by more obvious pictures of despair and addiction.
A year ago I foolishly thought I was finished with the project but the project was most certainly not finished with me. Getting to know and respect certain individuals over a long period of time has had a profound effect on the way I have photographed them. But there also lies a conundrum. Photography of people is always some kind of exchange. However much I genuinely want to tell significant stories, my main aim is to take the best photographs I possibly can and I must not lose sight of this or try to hide it. I have to be what Mimi calls “a ruthless gentleman” in the quiet and persistent pursuit of these photo stories that have seeped into my skin. It is a long and difficult road ahead but it’s a journey I am looking forward to. Dominika, one of the queens of the square told me that a young girl had come by asking to take pictures for a “project” but had been told “no thank you, we have our photographer”. Acceptance can be a long time coming but is absolutely essential to work like this.
I must mention fellow photographer Holly Revell who has come down to the square in her own time to make more formal portraits of some residents and experiment with long exposure photo-booths. The portraits will hopefully be made into boards and shown in the square itself. The residents will be represented and it wouldn’t even be me that took the pictures. I just held a light and the reflector.
You can find more information on Roland Ramanan here..