Social activism and story telling: photographers whose work is more than just an image

Ridley Road Market. Pic: Wayne Crichlow

Photographers Brunel Johnson and Wayne Crichlow whose work is part of a new exhibition talk to Eastlondonlines about the importance of social activism in their photography

As gentrification rolls through Hackney – once on London’s poorest boroughs, but now one where house prices have risen exponentially – it is important to document social cleansing and the area’s rich Afro-Caribbean heritage, say photographers Brunel Johnson and Wayne Crichlow. 

Activism and documenting social injustice have been important parts of both Crichlow’s and Johnson’s work. 

They have both been commissioned by the collective of visual storytellers Hackney Future to document Ridley Road as part of the ‘Ridley Road Stories’ street exhibition, which can currently be seen in Dalston Lane. 

Johnson, 28, is a self-taught photographer from north-west London who began to shoot after studying Mathematics at university. He has recently won the Portrait of Britain 2020 award with a powerful shot of London’s BLM protests. Along with his long list of personal projects, he’s been working on commercials with Adidas or Timberland, the Nike x Afrohijabi campaign and works in Gambia to raise money and awareness for poverty.

Johnson told ELL: “My camera will always be a tool to fight injustice and show the world in an unbiased and beautiful form.” 

Black Dreams Matter, London. Pic: Brunel Johnson

Crichlow, 53, from east London began to shoot from an early age with a modest bridge camera. His approach to photography took another path when his image, ‘The Cafe’, was commended as top 50 in the world in the 2017 Sony World Photography Award‘s Open Street Photography category. He later appeared in the show Master of Photography on Sky Arts where he ended up being one of the finalists. 

‘The Cafe’. Pic: Wayne Crichlow

Documenting Ridley Road 

The Future Hackney group, led by Donna Travis, launched the project ‘Ridley Road Stories’ to reinforce the cultural and historical relationship between Afro-Caribbean communities and Ridley Road. 

Echoing the ‘It’s My Hair’ series he did last summer, Johnson was commissioned by the collective to document black hair salons on Ridley Road.

Photos of ‘It’s My Hair’ series. Pic: Brunel Johnson

Johnson spoke to ELL about the tradition of people doing hair outside on the street: “Have you ever seen traditional salons do hair outside on a sunny day? Why do the Ridley Road salons do it?” He said that this practice originated because most black salons are not given the opportunity to rent salon spaces.

Afro hair has always been a symbol of the fight against racism. Johnson documents what it really takes to maintain hair that has – for a long time been – the target of criticism and judgment. “For too long, black people have had to forsake their hair because it was deemed unprofessional, due to racism, ignorance and lack of understanding the process behind maintaining Afro hair,” he said. 

Photos of Ridley Road Stories documenting black hair salons. Pic: Brunel Johnson

Crichlow’s own memories of Ridley Road Market go back to when he was a child, and documenting the road has been an important project for him personally. He said: “When you walk along the road, you see the butchers and store holders that have been there for so long. When I came back there, the sounds were the same, the smells were the same. All the sensitive perceptions came back to me.

“I felt we needed to preserve the culture, the images of the people that live, work and trade on [Ridley] road. Because at some point in time, that road will be changed probably forever.” 

Crichlow wanted to build a sense of trust with the community as he documented the lives of residents. “The images are not orchestrated or set-up. I went there without preconceived ideas or plans. I only knew it was going to be organic.”

Ridley Road Market daily life. Pic: Wayne Crichlow

Telling stories through photography 

Through his work, Johnson tries to question and understand why racism exists, and how to eradicate it. Photography has given him a voice to challenge racial profiling and stereotypes – that no other medium would have. 

He told ELL: “As a black man in London, racism is something I live and encounter daily; structurally and individually. So, I guess it’s only natural to document that which you experience daily in many different forms.”

“No one wants to hear you moan or complain about something they can’t comprehend. But using a creative approach can force them to listen and make them aware of the reality beyond their bubbles.” 

Portrait of Brunel Johnson. Pic: Paolo Diaz

“I’ve been told numerous times that I don’t look like a photographer…Why is that? Is it because I wear sporty tracksuits similar to what has been stereotyped to represent so called ‘thugs’? Is it because of the way I speak? My skin colour? I really don’t know.”

Johnson’s work aims to challenge norms and to ask questions. His ‘Overzealous policing in London’ series questions the relationship between black people and the police: “Are police stop & searches higher within the black community? If so, how is it affecting the relationship between police and the public?”

Photo of the series ‘Overzealous policing in London’. Pic: Brunel Johnson

Crichlow’s interest in photography stems from an interest in images from the Freedom Rights movement in the UK. Starting as a street photographer, he moved into documentary photography and tries to tell stories through images. 

Selfie of Wayne Crichlow

He told ELL: “I’m a strong believer in people’s rights of expression. We should be able to use that voice. All I’m doing with the camera is showing that moment.”

And indeed, he’s been documenting major recent protests recently, such as Extinction Rebellion, BLM in the summer, or the anti-Brexit rally to name a few. 

BLM protest in London. Pic: Wayne Crichlow

Crichlow hopes to capture images that future generations can look at and learn from. “I’m trying to create the historical art effects of the future. I think that is one of the things we need to do as photographers.” 

Johnson echoed this point, saying, “I believe people will want to see how life in this era was in the future. I don’t like how the world now has a short life for everything. I believe you capture a moment for it to last forever.”

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