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Twelve Years of Excess in London's East End

Dougie Wallace has been taking pictures of the people in Shoreditch—ruining themselves and everything around them—for nearly 12 years.
November 12, 2014, 5:35pm

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

These days,​ Shoreditch is many things: a home for man buns and £6 sandwiches, a place for pop-ups to pop enthusiastically up and then ​deflatedly down. It's the place where they send The Apprentice contestants on week three, where Alan Sugar screws up his bollock-like face and tells them to sell T-shirts with a shit, hand-drawn Union Flag on it to anyone with lobotomy scars and a spare £45.


"These bladdy hipsters," Sugar is saying. "These young people, with their money." He's roaring now, in tears. Nick Hewer's covering Karren Brady's eyes as Sugar rips off his shirt, his tie still round his neck. Sweat rises off him like a steam. "I WANT YOU TO RINSE THESE CUNTS DRY," he's saying. Every single week three. "DON'T YOU FACKIN' WALK BACK IN THAT BOARDROOM WITHOUT AT LEAST A TON EACH IN YOUR BACK FACKIN' POCKETS."

Importantly, though, "Shoreditch" has sort of become an adjective of late, a shorthand for "feckless hipster gobshite." Sometimes it's easy to forget that it's a reputation the area has worked hard for. In the last 12 years, more parties have been put on and more recreational drug deals struck than in the whole of a city like Manchester over the equivalent time period. I have absolutely no quantitative stats to back this up but luckily photographer Dougie Wallace has spent those 12 years capturing all of East London's stupid mess and now, he's releasing it in a new book called Shoreditch Wild Life.

If Wallace's hyperreal, double-flash, people-pulling-candid-faces-while-eating-chips aesthetic seems familiar to you, that's because his previous collection, ​Stags, Hens and​ Bunnies, was legitimately one of the greatest things ever. I spoke to him about the fuzzy concept of Shoreditch, why he likes taking photos of people with their mouths open and the sticky subject of permissions in street photography, just to lighten the mood.

VICE: So, Dougie, how long have you been taking photos of Shoreditch?
Dougie Wallace:​ It's been, like, 12 years or something; since Gary's Bar was under the bridge on Kingsland Road. I've probably been taking pictures in the area longer than that, but the main ones are on digital cameras and before that it was film. I'm not really getting back into my film, so they've gone.

OK. You must have seen a fair old change in the area over 12 years.
To me it's always for the better, though. Twelve years ago it never used to be called "Shoreditch"—it was "Hoxton and Brick Lane" or "Old Street and Brick Lane." The only thing in Brick Lane was ​the Vibe Bar and maybe Sandra's bar [The Golden Heart]. There was nothing really in between, no Shoreditch House or these other places. But that's what people come for now. The people who come on the Overground at the weekend are the people that would have once been going to Camden. They're coming for the "Shoreditch experience," the idea.

Do you think that Shoreditch becoming shorthand for "shit high haircut" and "expensive coffee wankers" means the area gets a bad rap?
People will always poke fun at it, won't they? But I suppose it does. I suppose I do as well. I mean, there are so many pictures from bars, aren't there? I don't come out of it looking too well. But I think what you do see in the book is that I've included pictures of people who are actually local to the area rather than those who just come in for the weekends. The Brick Lane market on a Sunday morning and stuff. I've not just just concentrated on clubbers and trendies—there's quite a good mix in there. Hopefully, the book will be in the British Library in 20 years' or 40 years' time, and people will be able to look at it and say, "This was Shoreditch."

How do you take so many pictures of people without them seeming to notice?
​Well, now I'm using two flashes and shooting high-speed sync, so it has to be a really sunny day for people not to notice. There's this market on Slater Street that's dodgy as anything and if I'm there with two flash guns I can't hide. If it's really sunny I put it up in really high-speed sync and then they can't really see it unless you shoot it right in their eyes. You can bob and weave, though. You need to treat it as a challenge, taking some of these pictures. But most of the time you're alright. You can use your instinct.

Do you think that some people think it's invasive in any way to be photographed in the street or ​on buses? Have you ever had people say, "I'd rather you didn't do that" or asked you to delete photos?
You do get people saying "delete that" but on the whole I don't. You can use wee tricks—it's kind of like being a street magician, you get the picture and then you need to sort of fade away. But where does it start and where does it stop if you can take people's pictures? I was in Victoria Park and took this picture of a girl with a dog, and then she said, "Can you use that?" I just said, "I'm taking a picture of the park."


It's a bit intrusive, yeah, but that's just what you do. If you're a writer, you base characters on real people. It's just seeing something and making art.

It's like what they did in France, a year ago—you can't really take pictures without some sort of  ​model release if you want to use them. You can't really take street photography in France, or any photography, if anybody is in the street. They're doing it more and more here, too—if you go to places like Trafalgar Square and you look professional they'll stop you now, and it's the same in big shopping centers. I just don't see how it's workable.

Maybe it's because you get so many pictures of people with their mouths open. How have you honed that particular skill?
Yeah, I catch them with their mouths open a lot. Especially in Blackpool. A lot of that's their reaction to the two flashguns. They're talking to somebody, or shouting, expressing themselves, and the flash helps capture that moment.

What is it about shooting everyday people going about their lives that appeals to you, rather than sitting in a studio with a model doing poses?
I've never taken a formal posed photo in my life. It would bore me too much.

​Buy the book at Hoxton Mini​ Press or ​buy the​ Collector's Edition

​See more of Dougie's w​ork here

Follow Joel Golby on ​Twitter.