Exhibition narrates an 80s Brick Lane

Raju Vaidyanathan talking through his photographs. Pic: Natasha Chisabingo

As an inquisitive 14 year old boy living in the heart of Brick Lane, Raju Vaidyanathan wasn’t sure what to do when he got given his first camera. Although it was fairly basic and “probably second-hand”, he accepted this gift happily and began capturing the world around him.

Taken in the 1980s, Vaidyanathan’s photographs capture a time, which is long gone. Now the Brick Lane local has put them on show – and they are proving a hit with locals.
They depict life as it was at the time: local children leaving their school, the nearby fishmonger - named Harry -who Vaidyantahan says would frequently invite him and his friends in just for a chat.

Fisherman, Harry outside his Brick Lane shop. Pic: Natasha Chisabingo

One thing is clear as he talks through the current exhibition. The people in these photos are not strangers. Everyone who appears in this exhibition has some form of significance in his life, and this is evident as he explains stories behind the images.

He tells Eastlondonlines: “These are the people I grew up with, my friends, my team mates, they were all a part of my normal life; I didn’t go out looking for people to photograph and that’s what made discovering these photos special.”

He’s referencing the fact that for almost 30 years, many of the images now displayed in the exhibition were long forgotten, hidden deep within storage boxes. In fact, it was only due to taking up an evening course in black and white photography development at his current workplace, the Idea Store at Watney Market, that Vaidyanathan was able to see what became of the film rolls. Now aged 48, he’s finally able to not only retrieve these images but share them with a wider audience than he ever could’ve imagined.

Several of the photographs. Pic: Natasha Chisabingo

He says: “From 1989 I pretty much worked late every night with little free time, and I would always tell myself ‘next time I’ll develop the photos’, but next time never came”.

After six months of evening classes he had enough expertise to develop the images and got to work.

He says: “It’s definitely a long process, I’m sure anyone will tell you. Just yesterday I spent five hours in the dark room and left with three images and that’s quick in my eyes!”

To help himself along Vaidyanathan invested in a film scanner. This allowed him to check his negative files, match the images on his computer with the corresponding file, therefore seeing what images were where and allowing him to decide which negatives to priorities when printing.

He’s currently done up to 106 files and estimates hundreds more, with potentially up to 30,000 photos in total.

But he’s not in a rush. It is clear from spending time with him that this is about rediscovering memories and taking time to curate them together.

“For me this is a process that shouldn’t be rushed. When I took all these photos there was no way of knowing what they would turn out like. You take a picture and forget it within hours so I like to take the time to relive some of the moments as I see them again for the first time,” he explains.

Vaidyanathan picks out some of his more memorable photographs. Sitting out of a football game on Canon Street after being fouled. Climbing up to the top of what is now known as Christ Church Spitalfields before health and safety restrictions were enforced. Sitting with his ‘Chachi’, (Aunty in Hindi) in his local pub and helping her home.

And he isn’t the only one to have memories evoked from the photos he takes.

He tells of how just recently, a young woman came to view the exhibition only to find her father was one of the subjects photographed by Vaidyanathan.

“It’s just a simple close up of a man sitting outside, not particularly a standout image, not much detail but I remember her crying her eyes out. She told me that in all her life she had seen no pictures of her father, only two small passport photos.”

This is not the only instance of family members being recognised through Vaidyanathan’s exhibition.

He tells of women coming in and spotting their husbands, photographed as young men, begging him for more of these images for their own archives.

He looks amused: “’Send photos of my husband when he had hair’ they tell me, but what I really want is for them to give me photos of their husbands now, as a comparison for us to see”.

Exhibiting the photos from the 1980s is just the beginning for him. Having stayed local to build his life in the borough of Tower Hamlets, he found that many of the people he photographed decades ago, have also stayed in the area, grown up now, with jobs and families.

Vaidyanathan is hoping with time he’ll be able to contact anyone he can, bring them along to the exhibition and try and curate a ‘before and after’ style display, something along the lines of ‘The faces of my Brick Lane; now and then’.

“The name and idea are still very much in practice but the basis is to replicate the photos with the people now, where it is possible.”

For now Vaidyanathan plans to continue scanning his negative films, he tries to do a few every morning. Although he never quite settled down and started a family of his own, he explains how he one day hopes to sit down with his many nieces and nephews, who also live in the area and share with them these pieces of history captured through his lens.

He added: “I’ve done two boxes, by the end of the year I’m hoping to start the next box. I’m sure it’ll take me most of my life to sort it all out and I’m okay with that, I spent years taking these photographs and I’ll happily spend years rediscovering them.”

The exhibition Brick Lane Born is touring locations in Tower Hamlets from Tuesday, January 31 – Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

The locations are: January 31– March 27
Idea Store Watney market, floors 1 and 2
Photos of young people, football, and leisure

Idea Store, Whitechapel, floor 4
Photos of markets, shops and streetscapes

Following this the exhibition will move to:

Idea store, Bow, April 4 – April 26
Idea store, Canary Wharf, May 2 – May 30

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