Interview: Tom Hunter talks Hackney, history and regeneration

Photo: Sophia Ignatidou

Built just after the Second World War to accommodate those from the bombed remains of east London, the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney is one of the largest in Europe, and is home to 2,500 families. Now the stories of ordinary people living there are the subject of Tom Hunter’s new film.

Photographer and artist Hunter, has strong ties to Hackney and the film ‘A Palace For Us’ is going to receive a special screening at the Rio cinema in Dalston this Wednesday. The film was commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery where it will be shown  until December 20th.

The project, a collaboration with Age Concern Hackney, includes first-person accounts from the estate’s residents. It has been in the works for some time.

“I have been working on it for three years, meeting people and recording their histories,” Hunter says. “ We recorded 25-30 histories but we selected only three because that’s all we had the budget for.”

Hunter was the first photographer to have exhibited his work in London’s National Gallery in 2006 presenting his ‘Living in Hell and Other Stories’. His distinctive pictures are full of classic references from Vermeer to the Greek mythology. This, his first film venture, is not a step off course but a natural evolution. “I direct my photographs, so in some ways when I work within photography I work very much as a film director,” he says.

It’s not the first time Hunter has collaborated with local residents to produce his work. In fact, most of his photographs portray Hackney and its people. As far as he is concerned, it couldn’t be any other way.

“Hackney is where I live. I don’t really see the point of travelling around the world to find what you can always find on your doorstep. I think there’s such rich history, such beautiful people, such amazing locations, incredible human stories right at your doorstep. It does seem a bit strange that people are so desperate to run around the world and look for other people and understand them. I think there’s a lifetime of work to be done just in my neighbourhood.”

Time is an integral part of his working process. “I am a slow worker and I believe you get a lot more in depth by that attitude. This way people become part of me and I become part of them. It’s a much more organic way of working and I think much more beautiful as well. I just don’t want to rush into some place and take something – as in pictures or film – and take it away and end up being separated from the people I work with.”

Hunter’s work with the people that surround him is not something he takes lightly. “I feel very responsible for the people I am working with and I feel that if I was going somewhere for a short period I wouldn’t be doing these subjects the service that they deserve. I really love to represent the people I live around and give them dignity. Ordinary people that normally don’t get their film shown in a cinema or an art gallery.”

The artist looks for the extraordinary stories behind those ordinary people. He also feels intrigued by the way tabloid journalism reflects them and their lives.

“Tabloid journalism just picks up on the headlines and doesn’t delve into the stories or the aftermath of certain dramatic events. I think as a society we have a quick-fix mentality and we are interested in the murder, the explosion, the rape or the crash but what’s interesting for me is why people got hurt and the human story behind it. It actually takes a long time to discover that and to work with those people. We need the tabloid press but we also need people to find the deeper stories. I just want to make clear that I am not criticizing a different way of representing life, I just want to make it more balanced.”

Woodberry Down is currently in the throes of regeneration and there has been concern that some of its residents may be forced to move but Hunter says: “I think most people will stay. The process is part of the East End that constantly regenerates itself”.

Life has already proved him right once. “Before the war Shoreditch was full of slums mainly from Irish and Jewish descendants. You had a huge amount of overcrowding and poor people. When they cleared all the slums their people moved to Woodberry Down. This constant change is always fascinating for me. Seeing new influxes of people, others becoming wealthy and moving out, new arrivals and their mixing in, it makes it quite a magical place for me.”

Hunter’s take on housing doesn’t seem to carry the gloom of some press coverage. “I am very optimistic about the future. It’s good to change. ‘A Palace For Us’ isn’t just nostalgia, it’s a memory of what has happened and I wanted to record it”.

He does that baring in mind its social context. “It’s a quite an interesting time when we talk about the end of socialism and social housing. When I came to London I had no money, no prospects of buying a house so I ended up in a squat in Hackney. Gradually I became interested in how people end up squatting. In Hackney you have a whole community living in incredibly different places, bigger houses, council flats, squats. I really wanted to talk about it and critique but not criticize it. Not rubbish it but celebrate it. Celebrate the diversity.”

Current exhibitions – Screenings:

‘A Palace For Us’ is being screened daily at the Serpentine until January 20

– There will be a special screening at the Rio at 11am on Wednesday December 15

– ‘Unheralded Stories’ an exhibition by Tom Hunter is at the Purdy Hicks Gallery, Bankside SE1 until January 15

– Tom Hunter is participating in the ‘Please Write’ exhibition at Posted Gallery, 67 Wilton Way, London, E8 1BG,  until February 27

One Response

  1. John Thornton December 13, 2010

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