On a Thursday evening in June 2017 I pushed through a large brown door and stepped, somewhat apprehensively, into a large clubroom filled with West Indians playing dominoes. The Queen looked down from a portrait on the wall. It was a revelation; I had no idea that this community met in the heart of Clapham three nights a week to play dominoes, and I have been living here for 30 years!
Trevor, a friend from my church, had invited me along to see whether there might be a photo-story to be told about his club. When it comes to photography, my particular interest is photographing people and communities in South London, and documenting their daily lives and relationships. I want to tell stories that haven’t been told before, to bring to life ‘the unknown and unseen’. On that first evening, I was only after a possible dominoes photo-story.
But as I spent time with this lovely group of people over the subsequent days and weeks, listened to their stories and found out more about their lives, I realized that there was a much bigger and more important story to be told than dominoes. A story about the very particular way this proud community of first generation migrants from the Caribbean live their daily lives, true to their traditions. A story that many of the people living alongside them, here in South London, know little or nothing about.
So my eleven-month journey began. It was to take me to many homes, clubs, community groups, churches and cemeteries in and around Clapham. At first it wasn’t easy. I was a stranger in their midst (with a camera and sometimes a voice recorder!) and people were, understandably, a little uncertain of me and my intentions. But as we got to know each other this warm-hearted community opened up their lives and their homes to me, and enabled me to tell their story.
Knowing that I wanted to capture the totality of the particular ways this generation live their lives gave me a structure for my endeavours over the ensuing months, and drove my constant pleas for advice, ideas, help, contacts and, that most precious thing for a photographer, ‘access’. For example, I knew that I had to capture a ‘Nine Night’; I was determined to find an intact example of the legendary ‘Jamaican Front Room’.
And I absolutely had to track down an original ‘Windrusher’, which eventually led me to Leeds and the delightful Alford Gardner, a proud new arrival in Tilbury in 1948, now aged 92.
'It was supposed to be tough...but I never really had tough times. I've lived a brilliant life here.'
This has proven to be, by far, the most challenging photo-essay I have ever undertaken but also the most important.
Challenging, because it has required me to spend a lot of time getting to know, and earn the trust of, this tightly-knit community. Challenging, because it required me to embrace more and more individual stories as I learned about their distinctive lives and traditions, resulting in the breadth and scale of the undertaking continuing to expand.
Important, because as I became increasingly immersed myself in this project, I realised that I was capturing living history. As this generation passes away, and the younger generations move on, some of these traditions will become lost forever. And so it felt imperative to document this way of life and to record these stories before it becomes too late.
All told, I took photographs on 70 occasions, sometimes for 7-8 hour stints, sometimes for just an hour or so. Sometimes I didn't take my camera out at all and, instead, just listened, chatted and watched.
It has been such a privilege and pleasure to have shared in the lives of this generation that I live alongside. I have so much respect and admiration for what they have created here and for what they have given us which, in my eyes, is both very precious and very beautiful.
I could not have told this story without the help of an enormous number of people and I am deeply indebted to every one of them; they are listed here.
But there are four people I would like to give special thanks to: to Katy Barron for her thoughtful curation of this enormous undertaking and for her wisdom and counsel; to Nick Barnett at Bayeux who has so beautifully and sensitively processed and printed the images; to Stuart Smith and his team at GOST who have designed and created the book that accompanies the exhibition; and finally to my lovely wife, Ruth, for her ideas and advice throughout and who has been so immensely understanding and tolerant of my need to immerse myself in this new world over so many months.
I hope you enjoy ‘Windrush: Portrait of a Generation’