'I was amazed': meet the London teens recording the vivid lives of their streets

In our second report for this year’s Guardian and Observer appeal, we talk to photographers in Hackney, east London, recording their area’s culture

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Seamstress Elvine Ohlala models a locally sourced costume she created for photography project Ridley Road Stories.
Seamstress Elvine Ohlala models a locally sourced costume she created for photography project Ridley Road Stories. Photograph: Christopher Andreou/Future Hackney Collective
Seamstress Elvine Ohlala models a locally sourced costume she created for photography project Ridley Road Stories. Photograph: Christopher Andreou/Future Hackney Collective
Patrick Butler

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 05.37 EST

The young photographers of Future Hackney’s youth project were back on the street last week, cameras and equipment to hand, in the latest – socially distanced – chapter of their continuing enterprise to record the vivid lives and stories of Ridley Road, one of east London’s most vibrant communities.

Tapiwa Cronin, 17, and Kiarra Joseph, 13, were assisting Future Hackney founder Donna Travis to take portraits and carry out interviews with Ridley Road locals. They were discovering how to interview, hold the reflector, try out shots, and learning about lighting and background. Later, their work will be published on social media.

For Cronin, who was brought up in the neighbourhood, involvement in the Ridley Road Stories project has been a revelation. Documenting road life – its market stalls, characters and diverse cultures – in pictures and oral histories has not only given her new technical skills but also transformed the way she sees the world around her.

“The Ridley Road community is so much a part of my daily life, but through learning about its history, this workshop truly showed me the enduring importance of the road,” she said. I was amazed by the culture and the people. It made me feel quite protective of the community.”

Travis, who set up Future Hackney three years ago, is not surprised. “If you take young people out and get them physically engaged with their community for positive reasons, they learn to create pathways for themselves. It gives confidence, the ability to create their own identity. It widens their horizons, gives them the bigger picture.”

Ridley Road is known not just for its market with scores of food stalls, but for its decades-long presence at the heart of Hackney’s African-Caribbean and African communities. For Travis, it was a natural location for a street photography project.

Some of the project’s photographs are currently on show in an outdoor exhibition along the side of the Red Cross building on Dalston Lane. “I love the fact the exhibition is outdoors, it means there are no invisible barriers, everyone and anyone can view it,” said Brunel Johnson, a photographer and graduate of Future Hackney’s young talent remit who will be returning as a youth mentor in 2021.

Until the pandemic struck, Travis and colleagues were taking out groups of up to 15 on street photography expeditions; social distancing means it is now limited to just four. Some youngsters are referred to the project by local youth groups, others come by word of mouth. They use old technology: polaroids and 1940s wet-plate cameras with the film processed in darkrooms.

“We make it clear to them that they are working on a professional project. We tell them it is about their community, their culture and local people’s lives,” said Travis. “We say: ‘we are on the road, and there’s a job to do’. That helps make them realise we are doing a real thing here.”

A traditionally created wet plate picture of a young member of the Ridley Road community.
Young people taking part in the Ridley Road Stories project learn traditional techniques such as wet plate developing. Photograph: Future Hackney Collective

Future Hackney has also undertaken projects documenting Black Lives Matter protests, and projects exploring the concepts of social change and cultural displacement through portraits of local people. “One of the outcomes is that young people understand that where they live is valuable both historically and culturally,” said Travis.

The project also helps hone life and career skills such as reliability, teamwork, being professional; it requires youngsters to speak clearly and directly, and to learn how to ask questions. Participants, some from deprived backgrounds, have gone on to higher education, to jobs in social media and youth work, and volunteering with charities.

Joyclen Brodie-Mends, founder of the nearby RISE.365 youth enterprise, which refers young people to Future Hackney’s youth project, said the pandemic has heightened difficulties already being faced by many local youngsters, from disrupted family life and schooling to poverty and limited life chances. For some, lockdown has been a time of anxiety, uncertainty and isolation.

She says projects such as RISE.365 and Future Hackney offer vital support: “When you know these young people from when they are children, the services we provide become more than a job. We are linked with people’s lives, families and wellbeing, and we strive to maintain communities that face extreme poverty. We are very much about empowering young people with community spirit.”

UK Youth, one of the Guardian and Observer’s 2020 appeal charities, points to Future Hackney as a great example of arts-based youth work. “We support similar projects across the country that may focus on developing technical skills in music, multimedia production, writing or the visual arts,” said Kayleigh Wainwright, UK Youth’s joint director of external affairs.

The charity will be distributing a portion of its share of the money raised through the appeal to grassroots youth work projects of all kinds, in the form of microgrants. “Youth work provides a space for young people to be creative and have fun, all while providing a safe space to learn important life skills,” said Wainwright.

  • Ridley Road Stories is at the Red Cross Building, 92 Dalston Lane, E8 1NG.