Behind the lens of Sarah Ainslie: making women’s work visible

Sarah Ainslie in the dark room in her studio. Pic: Sonal Nain

Women in Bethnal Green welcomed photographer Sarah Ainslie into their working lives for her latest exhibition of portraits. Sonal Nain reports.

I’m inside the studio of an award-winning photographer, having my picture taken against the backdrop of her work. I’m starting to feel a little uneasy as Sarah Ainslie tells me to look into the camera and to try not to smile too much.

Her latest exhibition of portraits, ‘Women of Bethnal Green at Work‘ being held at the Oxford House community and arts centre in Bethnal Green, showcases and celebrates the local working women who sustain their communities – tradeswomen, launderette attendants, volunteers, electricians, artists, and shopkeepers. How did she get her subjects to pose so naturally and candidly, I ask, still trying not to smile. “They were in the comfort of their own space,” Ainslie replies, “whereas you are in mine, which is why you don’t feel at ease.”

When the Tower Hamlets-based photographer first moved to the East End in the 1980s, she started going to Brick Lane to take photos of people she encountered, particularly the increasing number of women who were bustling along the streets as a part of the newly constituted working class. “It just became a part of who I am. I don’t have to consciously think that I have to capture women. It also has to do with a part of me growing up as a female photographer,” she says. 

Ainslie, now 70, started out as a theatre photographer in her late 20s. It was a male-dominated world then, and she would often hear derogatory remarks about her being a woman. She got involved in fringe theatres that produced work around women’s issues rather than more lucrative West End theatres, and gradually became interested in the invisibility of women’s work in local areas. To remedy this, she started capturing women in Hackney, Spitalfields and Shoreditch – determined to put them in the spotlight. 

It took Ainslie around three months to photograph 31 women and put it together for her current exhibition, part of Oxford House’s two-year heritage programme Through the Lens. She didn’t want to make it one-dimensional but for her work to be as inclusive and diverse as she could by picking up women from different professions, women of all colours, of all ages.  

Ainslie captured these women inside their workplace while they were working: “Every photo is so unique in itself, and I have a different relationship with each one of them; it was creating magic working with each one of them.”

She discovered some of her muses while walking past them in the neighbourhood, and simply asked if she could take their picture there and them. Afa Simpson, a painter/decorator, was working around the corner from Ainslie’s studio: “She looked at me, which just turned out to be candid. Sometimes things just fell into place,” says Ainslie.

While some portraits came about instinctually and unstaged, others evoked nostalgia. When Ainslie spoke to Donna Wood, a 35-year veteran of the Post Office, she remembered that she had photographed her 30 years ago for a different project in Hackney. “You rarely run into the same stranger twice in your life,” she says, “so when you do, cherish the moment and capture it on camera.”

Ainslie beautifully captured Layla Stevens, a stage manager at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Stevens otherwise would never be visible on the stage as, unlike actors, she usually works behind the scenes. However, Sarah made her the main character by capturing her while she was moving props from the stage.  

Ainslie believes the soul of her work is evoked by engaging with the community to explore ways of telling their stories: “So many stories can be made from the community with warmth, love and friendship.”

Women of Bethnal Green at Workis at Oxford House until March 31, 2023. It opens Monday-Friday, 10.30am-5.30pm; free entry.

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