London photographer Chris Steele-Perkins documents a changing Britain, by Tom Seymour on BBC Online, June 1, 2015.
London is one of the world’s most international cities – and it is fast becoming even more diverse. The 2011 census found that 37% of the city’s residents were born outside the UK, up from 27% a decade earlier. Today, families from every UN-recognised country – 196 in total, from Albania to Zimbabwe – are making a life and a home in Britain’s capital.
“The whole world is now in one city,” says London photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, who has devoted his career to documenting a changing Britain. “That’s never happened before in the history of the human race, and that makes London, and by extension Britain, unique.”
All in one room: Ana Tordecilla, in a black dress (front), sits next to her mother Anita Rodriquez, surrounded by relatives. The family is from Chile. (Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos)
But statistics are one thing. Being able to visualise what the numbers mean on an everyday level is another, as Steele-Perkins knows first-hand. The 67-year-old was born in Myanmar, also known as Burma, before coming to England as a child in 1949; he has spent his career studying Britain, particularly British immigration, through photography. From reggae clubs in Wolverhampton to street parties in Brixton and Notting Hill during the early 1970s, to the internal migration between cities like Belfast, Newcastle and Liverpool before and during the Thatcher years, the “extraordinary changes” of Britain as a result of the “triumph” of globalisation have fascinated – and been documented by Steele-Perkins.
The photographer is now embarking on his most ambitious and direct exploration of immigration yet: a sprawling series titled The New British Family, comprising shots of families across London who hail from other countries – indeed, every other country. So far, he has photographed immigrants from 66 nations, including Kyrgyzstan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Korea and Syria. That leaves 140 countries still to go.
“The most significant change taking place in Britain right now is immigration,” Steele-Perkins says. “And that represents a seismic shift in what it means to be British. I want to make a record, an ethnographic statement, of Britain’s new reality.”
From Iran to London: Ishmael and Ruby Shahbazi (on the couch), of Iran, are shown here with their children Nadia, Yashar and Daniel – and their dog, Monty. (Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos)
Through the relatively simple photographic exercise of group portraiture, Steele-Perkins reveals how complex and interwoven our ideals of nationhood and ethnicity have become – and how enduring, nevertheless, the family structure remains. When he began, Steele-Perkins thought he’d mainly find families of single nationalities. He quickly learned that was naïve: today’s families cross numerous ethnic and national borders. Through his photographs, viewers meet one nuclear family whose members hold Kyrgyzstan, Jamaican and British passports; the members of another include Mexican, South Korean and US citizens. “There exists in Britain this strange alchemy that is, somehow, rather successful at integrating people, at making them feel they can constructively be part of this society,” he says.
The Hrela family: Louise Hrela of Ireland with daughters Elizabeth, 13 and Grace, 7, along with their friend Scarlet (left), at home in London’s Camden. (Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos)
As well as British identity, the project also explores what it means to be a Londoner – originally, the project was even called The New Londoners. For Steele-Perkins and many of his subjects, the capital and the nation are indivisible, even as London continues to develop its own distinct sense of self.
“One of the things that struck me is how often I met people who didn’t regard themselves as British, but as Londoners,” he says. “There’s a very distinct London identity now. It’s becoming more difficult, I think, for people to be able to legitimately claim to be British, or Hungarian, or Jewish, or black – but they can be Londoners.”
‘The whole world is now in one city’: Adebimpe Ogunmokun, at right, of Nigeria, pictured with her sons Joe Arojojoye (left) and Michael Ashaplu (middle). (Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos)
There is also a personal element to this project. Steele-Perkins was brought to England by his father so that he could attend Christ’s Hospital boarding school; his mother remained in Burma. Living in Burnham-on-Sea on the Somerset coast, Steele-Perkins understood from a young age that nobody else in that community looked quite like him. “From pretty early on, I was acutely aware of being not quite the same,” he says. His experience has made him particularly aware of the way in which immigration is discussed in the UK. “Immigration has been treated in the media sensationally,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of ethnic groups being targeted and then rather excessively worried about: ‘Are they going to blow us up? Are they going to riot in the streets?’ As an immigrant myself, it felt insane that people took that kind of view.”
A family tower: Josh Peters, from Australia, and Nicole Seidermann, from Germany, with their children Skye, Kaia and baby Drew. (Credit: Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos)
That isn’t to say Steele-Perkins always took an open-minded view of immigration, or even of other people’s ethnicity. “I was loaded up by a bunch of different prejudices,” he says of his early years as a photographer, a career he pursued after stints as a chemistry and psychology student. “I had a lot of opinions that were less than tasteful. People are brought up with prejudice, and you are only able to dismiss it with experience – by meeting people and talking to them, rather than reading about them, or listening to other people’s stories about them. Photography has allowed me to do that.”
And, of course, to communicate those ideas to others – as with The New British Family, which shows viewers a vast and complex of array of different experiences of British living.
Steele-Perkins hopes to finish in the next year or two. In the meantime, he continues to search for other families from other nations, trying to understand what is to be an immigrant in this new country of nations, his exploration – like the evolution of Britain’s identity – ongoing.