Olympic City – London, 2012.
With the Olympics due to take place this year in the city that I’ve lived in for over a decade I had been looking for a way in which I could incorporate it into a photographic project. I’d not had much luck when I saw the words “London 2012” written in isolation from anything connected in any way to the Olympic Games. It struck me that, as well as being synonymous with the Olympics, in its most basic form ‘London 2012’ simply denoted a specific place and a brief period of time. It also struck me that the reality of London in 2012 was light years away from how it was being portrayed by those hawking this year’s Olympic Games to the rest of the world. After looking around for further ideas as to how I could build a photography series around this vague idea, I stumbled across these words from my main supplier of rage, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London:
“I want to ensure that London looks its best for the millions of visitors who will come to the capital, and the billions around the globe who will watch the Games broadcast. This is more than just delivering an unforgettable Games from the Opening to the Closing Ceremony. This is about the look and feel of every corner of the capital itself – whether the Host Boroughs, the West End, or the whole of Greater London.”
Boris Johnson – Mayor of London, 2012.
And there it was, buried somewhere in his re-election manifesto, some empty drivel about making every square inch of London “look and feel” good. It made me wonder what London he lives in. As soon as I read that sentence I thought just how utterly impossible that would be. Dozens of places instantly came to mind that would need years of investment and redevelopment before they’d look and feel anything other than the forgotten and rundown or heavily industrial areas that they currently were. Also, the whole statement is so openly vague that it is meaningless – even the opening words “I want to ensure…” sounds purposefully unclear; it’s not a promise of anything, not a commitment to do anything or even a statement of intent, just something he wants. It’s almost as though he doesn’t realise that he has the power to do exactly what he wishes to see happen.
My overriding issue with Johnson’s statement was with who he wanted to make London look and feel good for. It’s not for people who’ve lived here all their life, not people like me who been here for a decent chunk of their life, or even newcomers to London. It’s for visitors and people watching TV in foreign countries. In his own re-election campaign for the office of Mayor of London Boris Johnson prioritises people who’ll be in the city for (at most) two weeks and other people who won’t even be here at all. These are the people who take preference over the 7 million people who live in the city and this is a man whose sole responsibility in office is making London look and feel good. It isn’t limited to two weeks of the year when everyone’s looking; it’s a year round responsibility and as the elected Mayor it is his duty to the entire population of London to make sure it is something that he strives for daily.
Alongside Johnson’s desire to please everyone but those who live here, it was the presentation of London in the adverts of the Games’ corporate sponsors that made me want to take these photographs. Though entirely predictable the perpetuation of the myth of London in these adverts only serves to ignore the reality of life in the city and only helps to preserve the status quo. I never expected EDF or Coca-Cola to suddenly feel a philanthropic urge to throw billions of pounds at inner city housing or improving the transport infrastructure, but seeing London in this way made me want to depict a London that I recognise, not the one that British Airways served up that makes London look like a Narnia of permanent sunshine and happiness (whilst simultaneously desecrating the sacred memory of Joe Strummer.)
By portraying London in this way it overlooks its history and diversity as well as its complexity. London is not an easy city to live in; it’s expensive, vast, often dirty, overcrowded. Again, I never expected it to be portrayed in any other way than that in which it has been in the run up to the Olympics. But I want people to realise that behind the political glitz and the advertising agency’s depictions of the city there is another London that is being temporarily and purposefully forgotten and that this completely detracts from the city. By ignoring the reality of the city the issues that effect and sometimes blight it are also ignored, and this can only be a detrimental thing.
No city on earth is ever just its landmarks. For a city to exist it needs an infrastructure and more often than not infrastructure is ugly. It will also have a history and it will have areas that get forgotten and neglected as attention and industry drifts away to other parts of town or other parts of the world. New York isn’t just 5th Avenue and Broadway, it’s also Hunts Point and Willets Point; Venice is not just the Grand Canal or the Rialto Bridge, it’s also the Piazzale Roma. In the same way there are large parts of London where the look and feel are unavoidably grim but these places are just as much a part of the city as Buckingham Palace or Tower Bridge and are often an essential part of the fabric of the city.
Of course I’m aware that London is one of the world’s most iconic cities and that it is home to some of the most phenomenal buildings, streets, museums, galleries, and parks that are the envy of the world. I know that people will always be drawn towards London, either as a place to visit or a place to live and that by presenting London in the way that I have I could be just as easily accused of showing a distorted one-sided view of the city as BA and the organisers of the Olympics. My only aim with these photographs has been to offer some balance and some reality as to how London really looks in 2012.
The images used in this blog post are out-takes from the series. On a technical note, this series was shot on 120 film using a Yashicamat LM. The films were processed and scanned by Peak Imaging. I didn’t want to rush this series and wanted to be slightly more methodical in my approach to taking the photos. When shooting with a digital camera I tend to rush and usually end up disappointed with the resulting photos. Shooting on film tends to slow me down and I’ve always been happy with the results I get from this camera, which is why I chose to use it for this series.