Tom Hunter

The Way Home
The Home Away





Prayer Places

These photographs represent multi-denominational ‘Prayer Places’ all of which are located in the London borough of Hackney. They are taken with a simple pinhole camera - a wooden box with a small hole at one end that allows the light to enter. Hunter inserts large format colour transparency film into this device from which prints are subsequently made. 

Magdalene Keaney is Curator of the Fashion Space Gallery at London College of Fashion says of the work “Tom Hunter’s photographs remind us of the cultural and spiritual diversity to be found within our own local environs, in this case specifically within Hackney. They are another layer of a rich portrait that he is progressively building and extending with each new body of work undertaken in the area over two decades. It was important to Tom Hunter to continue working in Hackney and furthermore to find and interpret spaces removed from the increasingly pervasive commercialization and sanitization of his community neighborhood through ubiquitous property development driven on by economic greed… That these are much valued and frequently used gathering places for local communities is also pertinent to consider at a time of global crisis and conflict associated with extreme religious belief.

… Tom Hunter’s pictures are physically without worshipers, but could there be something of the residue of prayer picked up as tangibly as light seeping into his camera? There is a softness to the images, particularly around the rounded edges of each frame which comes from the pinhole technique but which also gives the images the assumed quality of a religious or ecstatic vision. This again relates Tom Hunter’s ongoing interest in Renaissance art where for instance, a painting by Caravaggio would hang in a church and itself becomes an object of devotion and inspiration. The circular inclination of these images is inviting, and it seems to me in standing before his images Tom Hunter wishes us to forget our worldly troubles and concerns and enter each place of worship with him. His photographs encourage contemplation though one is not in the physical space itself.”

Tom Hunter on the film A Palace for Us (UK, 2010)

MU: How did the project come about?

TH: From a commission from the Serpentine and Skills Exchange – which was a project to encourage artists and community groups to engage, and in particular for artists to get the elderly involved. Most of my work has involved highlighting and/or raising awareness of issues related to marginalised groups in society, and this was a similar one. I did a lot of research – meetings, going to community groups. Initially, the idea from the Skills Exchange was to focus on the Edgware Road area but I was more interested in my own neigbourhood, Hackney. I spotted an article in a local paper about Woodberry Down Estate and its being knocked down and the regeneration plans. All the cast are from the estate I was illuminating their story, creating a document of their narratives perhaps – not a straight documentary. 

There was an Age Concern group to encourage liaison between the community and the project, to engage the elderly with it. They had what’s called an ‘elders group’. I met them. The project grew from there. 

MU: Hackney and its communities have been the focus of so much for you. 

TH: Yes, though this was a different group and project. 

MU: What was it about this particular group?

TH: They were angry. It really wasn’t what you might have expected - old ladies sipping tea, sharing memories. These were a very vocal and opinionated group. And they had a wealth of information about the estate. 

I spent three years visiting in 6-8 week blocks. They had these three-hour coffee mornings where I would have informal social chats, and through these a detailed history began to emerge...I began recording their stories, over two months I collected twenty-five oral histories.

One guy, Jim, told a story. This woman, an air raid warden, was out on the night of a bombing and heard that a house had been bombed. She realised it was her own and rushed from the scene to the shelter where she found her children safe. But her son didn’t recognise her because in those few minutes where she feared her family were gone she’d gone grey – literally. Jim, who was telling the story, was the son. There was a lot coming out of these conversations about the war period – the bombing, of course, led to the requirement for the social housing. You realised that this was where the welfare started, where a period of social housing started, out of this history of the Blitz, out of the rubble.

There was this incredible pride in the project, this genuine dignity. As one of the participants said, ‘We couldn’t believe it. We didn’t have a home, and here it was it was a palace for us. ‘

MU:  That relationship, the one between the personal and the political, is a recurring theme for you.

TH: From these stories you got the individual account but it revisited the way we see social housing. A big question mark hung over 1100 flats and homes, but 4000 more are needed – the story moved from “what happened” to “what’s next” – and the whole issue of social housing , the positives in there. 

MU:  So was the intention from the start to make a film?

TH: No. At first I took portraits of the Woodberry Down residents in their flats. But somehow they seemed flat. I think because I had heard the stories, I knew that the portraits didn’t do them justice. I felt it needed to be developed in a different direction

MU: I understand the film had a premiere at the Serpentine?

TH: There was a Serpentine screening but the first screening was actually at the Rio in Dalston Kingsland – the nearest cinema to the Woodberry Down estate. We had the usherettes, the red carpet, free popcorn, the stars all sat in the front row and the place was packed with friends, family, local people. They were laughing and crying, seeing their stories told this way. There was a free dinner afterwards sponsored by Age Concern.  The participants came to the Serpentine screening too, but the Rio one was the big moment.The response overall was incredible. People were really proud to have taken part, proud that members of their family had taken part. Because DVDs are relatively inexpensive it was widely circulated- people had their own copies shared it with family.

MU: Was this the first time you’d used ‘found’ images – these personal family photographs?

TH: Yes. I have always loved photographs. And these are incredible documents, not necessarily any more ‘ true’ a representation, but there’s an innocence. This image (indicating girl in front of flats) – she’s so happy she’s in the sun. The flats are in the background but they could be a street in a village or a Georgian town house, anywhere. The social housing is the backdrop but there’s no sense of ‘social housing’ as an issue. I like the notion of what’s documentary and what’s fiction, of playing with that. 

MU: I can see this in your newspaper-story-inspired work, such as Halloween Horror, the Living in Hell series, and in the practice of combining classical influence and sensational content – or humanising the ‘marginalised’.

TH: Yes, in the film I am weaving in and out of that – a real image, a fake one, a performed scene – in the photographs the tension is within the frame.

MU: This search for a ‘real’ East End ... is there a real East End?

TH: The whole history of the East End – its fables, myths, people, dockers, immigrants, poor, all of them are ‘true’ but separately they are caricatured, have become stereotypes. Our world is at once real and imagined – I play with notions of reality and artifice. 

MU: In A Palace For Us the stories reveal an East End sense of community, a shared sense of well-being.

TH: This was important for me in an age of Top Boy ... I think this project demonstrates there is another side to social housing. From the War onwards, these many beautiful lives and moments.

MU: You came from Dorset. Does being (or having been) an outsider to the East End make a difference?

TH: People often say to me I’ve lived here for years but I’ve never seen it that way. Before I was here I had this image of a city – of things piled up, crammed together, the sort of Manhattan images of Magnum photographers . I came from a place where there was space – the sounds were wind and birds.  When I go back I can’t take photographs there – the big skies, the countryside and coast don’t engage me.

MU: Yet there is also a sense of villages and the rural, or some sort of ‘Arcadia’ in some of your urban work.

TH: The city is too big to understand. Too difficult to get your head round. One of the ways I’ve dealt with that is to make it my village, to imagine the village in the city. In a literal sense I have my pub, my shop, my fields.  But it’s also a way of understanding the city. 

Edited from a conversation with Michael Upton.


Woodberry Estate

Brick Lane

Brick Lane content coming soon.

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