Windrush: Portrait of a Generation

Jim Grover is a documentary photographer based in Clapham, South London. We caught up with Jim to speak about his latest exhibition, which explores the world of the Windrush generation in South London.

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 West Indians meet in the heart of Clapham three nights a week to play dominoes, and I have been living here for 30 years!

I had come along to see whether there might be a photo-story to be told about this community.  My particular interest is photographing people and communities in ‘my home patch’, and to document their daily lives and relationships.  I want to tell stories that haven’t been told before, to bring to life ‘the unknown and unseen’. And I also want to try to find ‘an angle’ or ‘a hook’ that will make the resulting work topical and relevant in some way.  On that first evening, I was simply 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, 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. And a story that I could dovetail into the important 70th anniversary (on June 22nd 2018) of the arrival of SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury.

So my eleven-month journey began. It was to take me to many homes, clubs, community groups, churches and cemeteries around Clapham. At first, it wasn’t easy. I was a stranger in their midst (with a bag of cameras and lenses, 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. I knew, for example, 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 on SS Empire Windrush back in 1948, now aged 92.

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 in the project as I learned more about their distinctive lives and traditions, resulting in the breadth and scale of the undertaking continuing to expand.

Important, because the more I immersed myself in this project the more 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 (both visually, with my Leica Cameras, as well as aurally) before it becomes too late.

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.  And I am so appreciative of their willingness to let me tell their story.

All told, I took photographs on 70 occasions over 11 months, sometimes for 7-8 hour stints (including up until 1 or 2 in the morning), sometimes for just an hour or so.  Sometimes I wouldn’t get the camera out at all and, instead, just listened, talked and watched.

It was a challenging story to photograph.  In part because I like to get very close with my camera (I usually shoot with a 28mm or 35mm lens) and that required me to earn the trust of my subjects, most of whom are in their 60-80’s and unused to being photographed in this way.  But more significantly because most of the stories were photographed in very poorly lit rooms (and late at night) giving me very little light to play with.

Most of the final selection of images were shot on the Leica SL (both with various M lenses and the 24-90mm) and the Q, with a few taken on the Leica Monochrom.  The Leica Q was an absolute joy to use on so many dimensions (discreteness; ease of use; and quality of files, including at some very high ISOs); it was the first time I had used it for a serious body of work and what a wonderful experience.  It has become my ‘go to’ camera.

The resulting photo-essay is broad in its scope and, working with my curator Katy Barron (who also curated my last major exhibition, Of things not seen, in 2016), we have structured the photo-story, and exhibition, into 12 different ‘stories’.  The exhibition also includes two iMac slide-shows, including of a traditional Jamaican funeral; a rarely photographed event and a very different experience to most funerals.

The exhibition opened on May 24th at the gallery@oxo on the South Bank and runs through until June 10th. Free entry.

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