The First 100 Days of My Photo Project, ‘The State of London’

18.8.17

The State of London: images from Andy Worthington's ongoing photo project, featuring photos taken over the last five years.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator — and photographer.

 

Back in May, I launched the first manifestation of a photo project I’ve been undertaking for the last five years — ‘The State of London’, which involves me photographing London on bike rides that I undertake every day, from small local circuits from my home in south east London to long journeys to the other side of town and back.

In the years since I began this project, in May 2012, I’ve visited all 120 London postcodes (the EC, WC, N, E, SE, SW, W and NW postcodes), and have also made additional visits to some of Greater London’s outer boroughs. A few years ago, I had a website made, with an interactive map allowing me to post photos by postcode. I hope to start using the website soon, which will also feature original essays about the capital, its history and its current state, and I’ll also soon be setting up a Twitter page, but for now the Facebook page is the place to visit to see glimpses of what I’ve been up to, and I hope that you’ll “like” it and start following what I do, if you haven’t already.

I’ve lived in London for all of my adult life, since I finished university in 1985, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I realized that huge swathes of the city were unknown to me, and that I wanted to visit all the places I’d never visited, as well as revisiting other places I’d got to know over the years. The trigger was me getting ill in 2011, giving up smoking, and realizing that I needed to get fit, and the photo project was the perfect solution. When I began, I soon realized that even the parts of London closest to me, in south east London were in many ways unknown territory, and, with a blanket ban on bicycles on trains in place in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games, I had to cycle through south east London to get anywhere else in London, and, as a result of these journeys and of my shorter bike rides close to home, I eventually got to know almost every street in south east London — and have also photograph many of them at some time or other.

I can’t claim to know the rest of London as well — or to have photographed it anywhere near as much — although central London (the West End and the City), east London (especially via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, the Regent’s Canal and the Limehouse Cut, and, further east, the Woolwich Ferry) and south west London have all generally been within reach, and it’s generally only the far north and west that I’ve rarely visited.

I began the project as reportage rather than as a fine art project, deliberately using a compact camera — a Canon IXUS 115 HS for the first year, and a Canon SX270 HS ever since — which has often been an advantage (in bad weather, for example, and when I want to avoid the unwelcome attention of security guards in places where public space has been privatized), although I intend, at some point, to get a DSLR camera, to branch out into some fine art projects involving parts of the city that I particularly love — and some of the constantly changing light and weather that I also love, and that affects, sometimes profoundly, how the capital appears.

I have learnt many things from my project — how we are not meant to be in buildings all the time, how we are waterproof (I cycle every day, whatever the weather), and how liberating it is to be off-grid and off-line (I don’t have a mobile phone, so when I’m out and about I’m also incommunicado). In the early days, I often used to get lost, as I travel without a map (or much of a plan), and that can also be quite a giddy, liberating feeling. It happens less these days, but it does still occur.

My feelings about London tend to be very mixed — as can be seen from my song, ‘London’, performed with my band The Four Fathers, in which I lament how the wildness of the 80s and 90s has given way to an almost total obsession with money and greed, siphoning the joy out of life, commodifying everything, and making London, for the first time in living memory, somewhere in which increasingly large numbers of people cannot afford to live, a situation that is both horribly unjust (as those who bought before the artificial housing bubbles of the last 20 years have been made disproportionately rich at the expense of others), and counter-productive, as key workers and the creative people who are often the last point of resistance to capitalism consuming itself and everything it encounters with dullness are forced to move out. This may well be good for other towns and cities, but it is a loss for London, and one that the capital can ill afford culturally.

‘London’ is posted below, and I hope you have the time and the inclination to listen to it —and to buy it as a download if you like it:

While my cycle trips have shown me the endless power and presence of the river, the glory of the capital’s hills, its hidden corners and abandoned places that resonate with me in particular, a panoply of light and colours and moods, and the buzz and colour of ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, in contrast to the general inertia of the city’s rich quarters, it is also rare that I am not confronted at some point by examples of the greed that has been steadily strangling the life of the city over the last 20 years, and that has gone into hideous overdrive since the Tories took power in 2010.

Overpriced towers rise up everywhere, their existence fuelled by a seemingly never-ending orgy of foreign investment, serviced by public school pimps, and, more shockingly, the councils and housing organizations who used to provide social housing, but are now part of the same programme of social cleansing, all determined to remove anyone from London who cannot pay tens of thousands of pounds a year for the alleged privilege of living in the human equivalent of a factory farm cage.

I touch on some of these issues in my photos and the accompanying text, and will never forget how the entirely preventable Grenfell Tower disaster in June exemplified how unfettered greed can lead to social tenants losing their lives — as, I suspect, an underlying narrative that will never go away, however much the sun may shine, and my eyes are drawn to other examples of beauty and grace in the capital.

After all, everything is political — even the decision not to be — and although forms and textures can appeal to us purely on aesthetic grounds, there is little in our lives that does not also reveal where power lies — and that, it seems to me, is especially true of the built environment.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    So here’s my latest article, marking the first 100 days of the public face of my photo project ‘The State of London.’ I actually began the project in 2012, when I began taking photos of London on bike rides every day, but (with the exception of some posts on Flickr in 2012-13) I didn’t start making photos available until 100 days ago, and since then I’ve been posting a photo a day here on Facebook, providing a glimpse of my visits to every postcode in London over the last five years, in search of whatever inspires me. This article provide some background to the project, and I hope you find it interesting, and will follow ‘The State of London’ if you do: https://www.facebook.com/thestateoflondon/
    I hope to start developing the website soon!

  2. Tom says...

    Good for you for keeping this going. In the early ’90s, I lived in London for a short time (West Kensington and then in Euston Square). I spent a year working ungodly hours and saving everything I could before I came over. I wanted better opportunities, and that was the place to go. I had several appointments all over London, and almost got a presenters job when Jazz FM started. The program director heard my tape and he said I like your background and the tape. But the bad news is that I have no money to hire you. If I did, I would. But I can’t. Sorry. Despite that, he gave more some more leads to try. So in the process the first half of the day was appointments. Then walking and taking the Tube all over. At night, I’d find the cheapest meal I could and say, how much money do I have today? I learned a lot about businesses, class problems and different neighborhoods.

    Now, despite all of the problems, you have the NHS and many understand the idea of human decency. Here, you could be denied coverage and go bankrupt or possibly die. It’s inequality to the nth degree.

  3. Anna says...

    It’s a great gallery Andy and you (and particularly Tyler) will be amazed to watch them in 20 years’ or more time as a witness to what London was like, as changes will occur faster all the time.
    I have an even more modest 🙂 Ixus 55, but it has the advantage of being extremely small and having a limited number of features – although even those are too many for me and I tend not to use any of them as I cannot be bothered learning all that by heart …
    There’s one catch though that you too might run into one day if you want to hang on to old cameras. When my set of batteries finally ran out of steam it turned out no camera shop sold that type anymore. I eventually managed to find a producer and bought two, but when these one day will die, I might have less luck and will be left with a perfectly functional and beloved camera useless for lack of a battery to power it …

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tom. I enjoyed your anecdotes about being here in London in the early 90s. It was a very interesting time in hindsight, with John Major not really in control of the country, the economy damaged, and quite a lot of really very interesting social dissent. I wish I’d taken photos in the 80s and 90s. They’d be an extraordinary treasure trove by now.
    So much has changed since then – and so much not for the better. As you note, we still have the NHS and notions of human decency, without which life is savagely cruel and unfair, but they’re under threat. In the 90s we still had hope. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to say that now for most people, except the rich and those most seduced by the cleverness of our technological advances.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna, and thanks for the kind words.
    You’re lucky to be able to hold onto your camera for so long, I think. My IXUS lasted about a year and a half before it started breaking, and my current PowerShot SX 270 is also on its last legs, falling apart on about three different fronts. Still, I’ve had it for four years and taken tens of thousands of photos with it, so I’m not complaining. I think it’s stood up pretty well.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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