Capturing The Spirit Of East London With Photographs Of Upton Park
All photos by Freddie Bonfanti

Capturing The Spirit Of East London With Photographs Of Upton Park

Before West Ham left Upton Park, photographer Freddie Bonfanti decided to document the culture of the club and the area. Here, we look at his pictures of a time gone by.
January 17, 2017, 3:27pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

In the epilogue to 'Long Live The Boleyn', Freddie Bonfanti writes of his feelings of grief and loss when the realisation of West Ham's move to the London Stadium hit home. Published in late 2016, the book documents the culture of Upton Park and West Ham as a football club through the medium of black-and-white photographs taken inside and outside the old ground. While his photos capture hundreds of matchday rituals, mid-match moments and much of the character of the West Ham fanbase, they also present the local area at its most natural and unguarded. There are fans in cafes, servings of pie and mash, Pearly Kings and packed-out pubs. There are kids playing football in the shadow of tower blocks, tattooed fans selling fanzines and, all in all, thousands of details which express what it once was to be a West Ham fan, while illustrating the spirit of E13 as it was before the club moved on.

When football clubs decide to move ground for financial and commercial purposes, the human cost of the endeavour is almost never calculated. Looking at Freddie's photos, it becomes apparent just how impossible it is to remove a club from its traditional heartland and expect that club's culture to remain the same. The identity of a football club is inherently rooted in the surrounding area, not only because of its physical presence but also because of collective memories, familiar haunts and the sights, smells and sounds of matchday. Add to that the local businesses which rely on the club for their existence – the favourite pubs, diners and food stands where supporters have passed countless hours – and the reality of relocation seems rather more profound than Karren Brady's platitudes about changing 'brand values' and cultivating West Ham's 'global appeal'.

While the London Stadium is only a few miles away from West Ham's home of 112 years, the difference between Stratford and Upton Park is marked. While the former is intermittently sterile – some wasteland, Westfields, and a cluster of luxury housing developments – the latter is a humming hive of activity, with faded Victorian pubs every few blocks and Queen's Road Market often spilling over onto the streets. Talking to Freddie, the fundamental difference this makes to those who support the club becomes even more obvious. "To me, it was the whole experience that made it special," he says. "It's the area that we all miss, especially now that we're walking to the ground through a corporate shopping centre."

READ MORE: Scenes From West Ham's Chaotic Final Night at Upton Park

Though Upton Park was far from the most polished stadium in the country, its authenticity and atmosphere were never going to be replicated elsewhere. "With Upton Park, it just felt real," Freddie says. "When we went to the ground, in the same way as when you go to Crystal Palace or QPR, it was like being somewhere else – like what London used to be." In a city increasingly dominated by glass monoliths and characterless new-build neighbourhoods, Upton Park was in many ways a vestige of a time gone by. It was a heritage site for many, though far too gritty to be recognised as such by anyone other than West Ham fans.

In creating a photo book of Upton Park and its surroundings, then, Freddie wanted to preserve something of that collective heritage for posterity. Speaking about the motivations behind the project, he says: "I always thought that we had something special at Upton Park. It was the antithesis of modern football, really, and everything that modern football was not. We had a strong community and a great fanbase, so as soon as they told us we were moving to the Olympic Stadium I thought: 'Somebody is going to have to document this, so we can have a memento of what it was like back in the day.'"

READ MORE: We Cordially Invite You To Watch Upton Park Being Blown To Bits

Having put some of the photos out on Twitter and received a positive response, the idea for a book came to Freddie from there. He started out with 1,000 copies, with profits from the first 300 going to the Bobby Moore Fund. The book has proved popular already, which is perhaps no surprise given the tough start to West Ham's life at the London Stadium and the wave of nostalgia which has come as a result. "Really, I just want to make sure that the fans to have something to hold onto, and something by which they can remember the old Saturday routine at Upton Park," Freddie says.

In terms of the change to the club's culture and identity that has come with the move to the London Stadium, Freddie does sound somewhat disillusioned. "I thought it was going to take a long time for things to change, but now, even this year, it's like supporting a completely different team. It's not what it used to be, so I'm glad I was able to capture something of the old West Ham." The photographs are even laid out in a way that reflects Freddie's matchday ritual, starting with various pubs – including the much-loved Black Lion in Plaistow – then moving on to the approach to the ground, the ticket booths, the turnstiles and the stands. There is something inevitably poignant about these shots. Economically, culturally and socially, one wonders whether the area around Upton Park will ever recover, and how exactly this part of East London is going to struggle on without the club.

READ MORE: West Ham Fans Of The Approaching End Of An Era

When asked about whether or not the process of making the book brought him any sense of closure, Freddie seems somewhat conflicted. "I think it might have, but it's still painful to go through. A lot of people who have read the book have said the same – that there's a lot of pain there. People are only just realising now that we were sold a corporate dream and, looking at it from the point of view of this year, I'd much rather go back to Upton Park, to be honest."

From a business perspective, Freddie understands why the West Ham hierarchy decided that the change was necessary. "I appreciate the fact that football teams need to progress, and that moving ground is an inevitably of modern football," he says. "In the long-run, I'm sure the club will benefit from the move. I'm just not looking forward to going to the game on a Saturday as much as I used to." While a trip to Upton Park was one of the quintessential experiences of English football, it's hard to imagine the same being said of the London Stadium, at least in the foreseeable future. Considering Freddie's own feelings on the move as well as much that has been said and written in the last few months, West Ham seem to be in danger of alienating many of their traditional, working-class fans with their pretensions to corporate grandeur. They no longer represent the old-school of East London, nor perhaps appeal as much to the East End clans who make up their core support.

Whether or not that means an impending transformation of the West Ham fanbase, we are yet to see. Perhaps that is what Karren Brady means when she talks about a rebrand, with the demography of Stratford more in tune with fashionable brand values than that of Green Street and Upton Park. While the London Stadium might still come into its own in time, who knows what the club will look like in the aftermath. In the meantime, West Ham fans have these photographs to remind them of the club as it was, and to stir their memories of the pubs, the cafes, the songs, the laughs, the little rituals, and their old home in E13.

Freddie Bonfanti's 'Long Live The Boleyn' is available here.