Chris Steele-Perkins is coming to the end of a four year project, The New Londoners, which charts the changing face of London and explores what it means to be British
Chris Steele-Perkins began The New Londoners four years ago, a project reflecting the individuality, community and unity of Londoners today. “The idea behind it was to think of a different way to photograph migration,” he explains. “Migrations have always been photographed very extensively in a dramatic, photojournalist sense, but I wanted to change that.” The project encompasses portraits of families from over 180 countries across the globe, who have all settled in London. Before it’s culmination into a book in Spring 2019, Steele-Perkins hopes to photograph 20 more. “It’s one of those projects that could go on forever,” he says, “But I have to draw the line somewhere.”
He chose London as the setting for the series because, in his own words, “London is leading the way as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city.” Home to people from every nation on the planet, there are currently around 200 nations listed in the city, according to the UN, making London the most ethnically diverse place in the world. This push to globalisation has occurred over the last 20 or 40 years, inviting new notions of what it means to be British.
Since Brexit, however, Steele-Perkins has noticed an increasing hesitation in people to be photographed; “There has definitely been an atmosphere. I feel like people are more reluctant to expose themselves, possibly, in case they are potentially targeted.” In many ways, this has given him an added drive to persist with the project, which now feels more timely than ever. The New Londoners has become both a celebration of the city’s cultural diversity, and also simply a record and testament of who we are now. “Migration is one of the great issues of our time, and something I don’t want to be disengaged with,” says Steele-Perkins.
Exploring migration and multicultural Britain is also something that he engages with on a very personal level. Having a Burmese mother, a Japanese wife and an Australian half brother, Steele-Perkins has stepped into the frame himself. “I feel 100% British,” he says, “but I am also aware of having grown up in Britain, in a country where being British largely meant being white.”
The New Londoners is an exploration of some of the questions Steele-Perkins has been asking for a long time; who are we now? And how can we define that? “I’m still trying to figure out what our country is and where I fit into it,” he explains. “I want to be able to look at these images and say yes, that’s where we were as a nation at the beginning of the 21st century.”
The series of photographs are all made in people’s homes, to give a greater degree of intimacy, and to show that these families are grounded in London. Whether they are staying put or passing through for some time, each of them make up part of London’s rich cultural tapestry. The British Library will soon be taking the prints into their permanent collection, rooting them in the UK’s cultural consciousness, as a reflection of this moment in time.
Portrait of Humanity also serves as a timely reminder, that despite our many differences, we are able to unite as a global community through the power of photography, to create one of the greatest collaborative photography exhibitions in history.
Words by Sarah Roberts