How can experimental photography teach us more about our communities? A Museum of London project in Hackney offers beautiful reflections of how Londoners see their home.
In 2015, the museum embarked on a three-year project to acquire the kind of photography it had never collected before. The Beyond Documentary project was all about exploring the boundaries between traditional, documentary photography and artistic interpretation.
Experimentation was very much the order of the day. To display alongside new experimental photography prints, the museum assembled four teams of volunteers to create short films about these works. My team focused on Stephen Gill’s Hackney Flowers (2004-06): a series of photo collages that layer shots of the borough with flowers, seeds and discarded objects from the area to create poetic new images.
We were given free rein to explore our own responses to the photographs, the themes and issues they raised – and to capture it on camera. Our first impressions spoke of the relationship between humans and nature in urban environments. We tried to guess at Stephen Gill’s methods as well as motives. Overwhelmingly, one question stood out to us:
The Hackney Flowers series is a good entry point into experimental photography, but what can it tell us about London?
We ventured out into Hackney to ask some Londoners. We were curious to see how the images resonated with people living and working in the area, and if they saw in them a reflection of the Hackney they knew.
Artists, market stall holders, poets, students and passers-by… All of them had insight to share, personal stories or memories of Hackney prompted by the pictures. Some saw in them a symbol of the recent redevelopments in the area, others were reminded of their home countries or deeper truths about the human condition. You can watch the film below:
The filmmaking team also took this photo series as a prompt to explore our own neighbourhoods in London. Following a process similar to Stephen Gill’s, we took disposable cameras to our local areas of Hampstead, Croydon, Bloomsbury and Harrow, and took the time to well and truly look around. We collected objects on the way, things that often go unnoticed: leaves, train tickets, abandoned or forgotten items. These were as much a record of those neighbourhoods and their inhabitants as the photos we took. We combined them in personal, poetic ways, and the finished product was our own interpretation of London, reflecting our personal experiences and observations.
You can still see this film and the works that inspired it at the Museum of London, bridging the gap between art and documentation to tell a story that’s entirely London.
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