20 Apr 2011

maybe it's because I'm a Londoner

One interesting response I had to my pictures at the London Street Photography show was a request for an interview for The Irish World. Nothing came of it...except it's lead me to reflect on my status as second generation Irish and what, if any, influence it's had on my work. Don't worry, this isn't turning into a misery memoire. Normal service will be resumed!

My first thoughts are around some kind of identity of belonging, Where's home?

I think I'm a classic immigrant child, caught between parental and host country's nationalities. The twist is the particular historic relationship between Ireland and England. Looking at my own upbringing and others I know of immigrant descent there's broadly two experiences. One a deliberate celebration of difference: a public life built around extended family and other immigrants; close affiliation to the social networks of religion, culture etc. The other experience of assimilation, keeping your head down, adopting not so much a pro-active Englishness, whatever that is, but a dilution of the ways of the old country.

My parents certainly had many friends from their old country. They'd met in the Irish dance halls of South London in the 50s and both worked in professions, nursing and engineering, with substantial reservoirs of Irish blood and sweat. However my life was relatively insulated from that world, I think, as a consequence of two conflicting ambitions of my parents. My father's dream to never settle here because in his mind he was always going to return home, and my mother's determination, as much out of necessity as desire, to make the best of life in the here and now, in England. The result was an in-between state of mind where England was not good enough for me, nor I for it.

So if I'm neither Irish nor English, then how about 'British', tribe of choice for many second generation sons and daughters? Well I'm afraid that resonated too strongly with the phrase 'Brits Out' painted onto the walls of my 70s childhood memories of family holidays in the north of Ireland. Consequently the only real place that I felt was mine to show allegiance to, and feel comfortable being associated with, was London. It felt big enough, old enough, strong enough...yet still undefined. Think of a Londoner and you're as likely to come up with Del Boy Trotter as you are Dick Whittington, Charlie Chaplin as much as Charles Dickens. Unusually for a label, 'Londoner' felt liberating not restraining.

link to my new London street photography

Today under my flag of convenience I stride my domain not as a king, more like a thief. London doesn't owe me anything. Unlike the Duke of Westminster I don't own the place. Everyone on the street is a Londoner, for one day at least. I'm just like them. Just visiting.
Thanks to these reflections, the in-betweeness of my upbringing, my subsequent choice of London as a safe haven, I now see a source of my particular take on the fluid and fragile nature of city life. The photographer as outsider is a well worn image but it's fascinating to consider in relation to street photography. Does the work of a native Chicagoan, Roman or Mumbaikar have any greater authenticity than the visitor? One for a future post I think!

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