The New Londoners - an introduction by Chris Steele-Perkins
A long time ago, or so it seems, a small boy and his elderly father entered the house of the father's widowed sister. The boy who was between two and three was duly hugged and kissed and feeling lost in these new surroundings looked around at the simply furnished room, the heavy curtains, the grandfather clock ticking in the hall. His aunt drew his attention to a small teddy bear sitting on a stool and he ran across and held the bear tight. This was his first memory of England, possibly his first memory.
The surroundings were strange; this was a small town in Somerset, and I had come from the sticky heat of Burma. My English father had taken me from my Burmese mother and brought me back to England to be raised by dutiful white English relatives, and an English boarding school. He could do that in those colonial days.
I did not look like the other children in the town, or in the school but I was not persecuted or bullied. I probably got picked on less than the unfortunate boy who, some claimed, looked like a rat. I belonged most of the time, but I knew I was different. The repeated question, nine times out of ten asked well-meaningly, “Where are you from?” A question that hovered over me with the sub-text that I was Other, but I also thought of myself as English.
My father loved me in his way. He wanted the best for me, one of the reasons that he brought me from Burma; to go to a good English school. A military man who did not show emotions or talk about his past, he railed against immigrants, non-white immigrants, and as I grew older, I challenge him that I was also an immigrant. “You are all right. You are my son!” ended the discussion. Here was formed the ambiguous love I have for my country.
I started this work as a response to the panic and hysteria building up in Europe as waves, swarms, floods, laid siege, we were told, to our borders, seemed to threaten our jobs, our way of life, our values, our identity, our being!
There were many people working on documenting the drama of the migrant journeys; the violence, the tragedy of the mass migrations of recent times. I had nothing to add through that kind of photography, but I wanted to make a record of these seismic times when it becomes possible to say that all the worlds' nations have come to live in London to create a population of a new kind, turning London into a truly polyglot city, probably the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic in the world. This is what I wanted to photograph while it is happening. The work is about the new generations, the new peoples who are re-making London: a fabulous cross section of world citizens of which I am a part, living here, working here, changing here, learning here, defining here. The New Londoners.
I started to work on this project by photographing families and photographing them in their homes, which were now in London, At least one member of the family came from elsewhere, outside of the UK. The idea behind focusing on families in their homes was that they would have a greater rootedness and a different migratory relationship with London than the passing tourist.
I initially wanted to make portraits of families where at least one member was from each of the 195 states recognized by the United Nations. However, what was a useful guide became a bit of a box ticking exercise – why rule out Chagos Island and not Palau? In the end I have photographed 164 families from around 187 countries, some, like Kurdistan have their own identity if not their own physical state.
Countries are evolving spaces. Change and growth are everywhere, but somehow, we manage to cling to a nostalgia for an imagined, better past, and the tribal urges to defend against the Other, to push out the Other.
Killing the Other can be the ultimate outcome, an outcome being played out in the world on a daily basis.
What is The Other? Is it a class against a class, a religion against a religion, a colour against another colour, a geography against a location, a language against a language, a sexual preference against a sexual preference? It is all of these things, and many more, while at the same time being none of them because it is a chimera, an illusion. What is England? Not what it was, not something fixed in the rigour mortis of history. Despite the prophesies of doom and hate concerning the consequences of immigration, I look around and can see the rivers do not run with blood. The ceremonies of innocence are not drowned.
In a world facing increasing threat from climate change and access to basic resources do we want to revert to a warring tribalism, repeat our destructive history with exponentially more powerful weaponry?
I would like to think that those of us who believe the human race has the potential for moral growth, of whom I count myself one, and those that believe what unites us is greater than that which divides us, will prevail.
This book is a plea for tolerance and for openness of heart. London, England, the United Kingdom, has been subject to countless changes, invasions and migration and finds itself one of the best places to live in the world; a city, a nation that generally feeds, educates, houses and looks after the health of its citizens - not perfectly of course but in my eyes this book is a celebration of the diversity and the fabulous cultural richness that is a hallmark of this great city: London, and a welcome to those who join us in making their homes here.
We must create a society that is global, that deals collectively and cooperatively with the threats, that affect us all: global warming, pollution, overpopulation, access to food, tribalism, warfare. In combating together, these universal threats are where true humanity is to be found.