In a quiet, affluent street minutes from Stoke Newington High Street, Alan Denney is sitting in his navy-toned living room. The room is quite bare, bar two crowded bookshelves. Wearing crocs and socks with a burnt orange jumper, Denney is sipping on his tea. A couple of cats slink around.
Alan Denny has spent the last 40 years viewing Stoke Newington through his camera lens and capturing candid images of the area. His photos offer a retrospective of Stokey’s history and can all be viewed on his Flickr account.
The 62-year-old got his first camera when he was 10 years old. He remembers his Italian mother’s big box of family photos. “I just became fascinated with these photos, they helped me to understand where I had come from, stuff about my family. They told stories.”
To this day, Denney views his photos as his diary and a means of documentation. “You can look at something and try to memorise it, but a photograph crystallizes it for you.”
Denney grew up in Gillingham, a small town in Kent. He describes it as “working-class Tories, soldiers, sailors. It was all about Britain’s imperial past.”
He recalls the difficulties he experienced growing up in Kent, highlighting the “rude and offensive” behaviour directed at his Italian aunt, who could not speak English, as particularly hard.
Denney moved to Hackney in 1974. “I had no love for Kent, so I came to London. The streets of London were paved with gold”, he jokes. After a shot at teaching, he went on to be a mental health social worker until he retired two years ago.
All the while however, Denney’s passion has been photography, which he says he approached from a political point of view. “Radicalised” by the Vietnam War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and inspired by photojournalist magazine Picture Post from the middle of the last century, he says: “I wanted to use photographs to provide evidence that capitalism wasn’t working and that it was not able to provide the conditions for a fully human life, if you like.” Photography was his way of recording people reacting to injustice.
“I just thought it was important to photograph these things, and hopefully make people so angry that they’d rise up and defeat capitalism. Well that didn’t happen, but I still think it’s important to maintain a critical stance towards capitalism. It’s clearly not meeting people’s needs. It’s giving us war, poverty, ill health, damaging our planet. We need to be angry about that, but unfortunately people in the West seem reasonably content.”
Looking at Denney’s catalogue of photos, many of which depict protests, they are filled with action, without a posed model or orchestrated backdrop in sight. “I just like photographing ordinary people here in Hackney.”
English photographer Tony Ray Jones inspired Denney’s method: “[Jones] made himself invisible on the street, he just took photos of people being themselves.”
Over the last 40 years, Denney has been at the forefront of some of London’s most significant events. He vividly recalls the 1978 bin man’s strike which he witnessed first-hand and more recently, the vigil for Mark Duggan. He remembers that there were very few police officers present and a notice on the door of the police station reading: ‘We are closed’.
Denney’s photos also illustrate the changing face of Stokey. “The population mix has changed in Hackney since I’ve been here… and it keeps changing.” He highlights an increase in residents from east and central Africa and Somalia, which has resulted in “different sorts of shops, differently dressed people, different food in shops”.
It is rare for a photographer to mainly stick to a single location. When asked if little Stokey provides enough inspiration, he is philosophical: “Well life is different every day.”
Denney’s Flickr account boasts 2940 photos, yet he is uncomfortable about selling his work: “You can’t privatise seeing things. Photography is just a way of crystallizing what you’ve seen. I’m happy for anyone to look at them and use them.”
“I’m an old hippy I suppose. They’re my gift to the rest of the world.”