Gentrification and Photography in East London

Recently East London has come under heavy scrutiny with regards to gentrification. Gentrification is the process of renewal that follows an influx of middle-class or affluent people into poorer areas of the city. The number of independent boutiques and the rising price of a pint is followed closely throughout the media. One of the most powerful ways in which it is being documented is through photography. Both photographers Zed Nelson and Colin O’Brien have addressed gentrification heavily in their work concentrated on East London.

Hackney based Zed Nelson is a key example of how effective photography is as a medium in order to address contemporary societal issues. His photography has taken him all around the world but for his latest work, the photo book A Portrait of Hackney, Nelson spent time on the streets that he has known since he was five. In this project the photographer directly addresses the fast pace changes that are engulfing his borough at an alarming rate. One of the key ways in which he does this is through the use of juxtapositions. The book is full on contrasts between luxury and poverty, excess and lack. Though this project has all the means of creating the view of a sad, impoverished neighbourhood being flooded by the middle class, this is where the medium of photography flourishes over that of writing. The candid nature of his work communicates an aspect of gentrification that is not often portrayed in the media. Nelson does not address facts and figures but emotions and portrays Hackney as a melting pot of identities and cultures as a result of this. The juxtapositions he creates hold a comedic value portraying subjects that do not at all blend into their surroundings. What has come out of gentrification in Nelson’s work is a whole new culture. Whilst the book is light hearted, the photographer still holds firm reservations about his borough admitting that though he adores the Hackney that surrounds him today, in terms of its fast development there has to be a stopping point.

Colin O’Brien is also an East London thorough bred and stresses the emotional effects of gentrification. What he does emphasise more heavily is the detrimental changes being made to East London particularly with regards to housing shortages, his images bring up interesting thoughts. There is an immediate association particularly within the media of a poor community with misery and despair. In his project Travellers’ Children in London Fields he stresses that though his subjects are poor, they are by no means unhappy. O’Brien says that the only way he is able to capture this side of a community is by embedding himself within it, he is not merely a tourist waving his camera around the face of the other. What I think is important to take away from both of these artists in terms of gentrification in the East is that a lot of the anger within the media is being directed at the symptom rather than the cause. ‘Hipsters’ are becoming regarded, as the bane of society however whilst there are no rent controls and cuts being made to housing benefit there is no foreseeable end to this.

Some of Zed Nelson’s Hackney photography can be viewed here.

Some of Colin O’Brien’s Travellers’ Children photography can be viewed here.

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