On a Thursday evening in June I pushed through a large brown swing door and stepped, somewhat apprehensively, into a large clubroom filled with West Indian men, playing dominoes. The Queen looked down from a portrait on the wall. It was a revelation, I had no idea this parallel world existed on my doorstep in Clapham.
I had been invited to see whether there might be a photo-story to be told about these dominoes players. My photography interest is capturing people and their communities in South London, where I have lived for 30 years, and to document their daily lives and relationships. I want to tell stories that haven’t been told before, to bring to life ‘the unseen’. On that first evening, I was simply after a ‘dominoes story’.
But as I spent time with this lovely group of people over subsequent weeks, heard some of their stories and found out more about their lives, I realised that there was a much bigger and more important story to be told. A story about the very particular way the proud community of first generation migrants from the Caribbean live their daily lives in South London. A story that many of their fellow south Londoners know little or nothing about.
So my eleven-month journey began. It was to take me to homes, clubs, community centres, churches and cemeteries around Clapham. At first, it wasn’t easy. I was a stranger in their midst (with a camera and sometimes a voice recorder!) and this close-knit community were, understandably, a little wary of me and my intentions. But as we got to know each other, these warm-hearted people opened up their lives and 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 some structure for my endeavours over the ensuing months, although I was constantly discovering ‘new treasures’, resulting in new chapters being added to their story. My passion for this project drove constant pleas for advice, help, contacts and, that most precious thing for a photographer is ‘access’, and one story often leads to another possibility.
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’; I wanted to experience, first hand, a Friday ‘open house’ when as many as four generations of a family come together to be family for the night. 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 1948, now aged 92!
And so a single story about dominoes progressively becomes one of 12 stories that together seek to describe how this wonderful community live their lives today, true to their traditions and culture.
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 successive 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations pursue their own lives here, some of these traditions will inevitably weaken and may even become lost forever. And so it felt imperative to document this way of life and to record these stories before it becomes too late.
It has been such a privilege and pleasure to have shared in the lives of this community that I live alongside. I have so much respect and admiration for how they live their lives, what they have created here, and what they have brought to these shores.
The launch exhibition of ‘Windrush: Portrait of a Generation’ in the Oxo gallery on London’s south bank in May 2018 was a wonderful success. An incredible 13,000 visitors came over the 3 week run and we had some wonderful moments in the gallery: visitors dancing to the 1960s Jamaican music we were playing, 3 and 4 generations of the same family coming along, and strangers talking to each other as images rekindled shared memories.
The entire exhibition, including the remarkable and inspiring life stories, is contained in a 245 page book and is available from www.windrushportraitofageneration.com, or from Amazon. For the month of [June], to coincide with the publication of the Windrush Commemorative Magazine there is a special price of £25 (the usual price is £35). The exhibition will also be restaged later in the year. Please visit the website for further information.
By Jim Grover