Murders happen everywhere. In homes, in parks, in office blocks, outside the Foot Locker on Oxford Street. However, once the police and forensics teams have been in and out – once the murder has had its mention in the local press – we tend to forget that anything ever happened there. Which is odd, because for a week or two, the meaning of the place changes immeasurably. It becomes the scene of something horrific, something that should taint that place for years. But it rarely does. Time moves on and the place becomes insignificant again, an anonymous building on an anonymous street.
Mexican-born, London-based photographer Antonio Olmos spent two years documenting these places for his project "The Landscape of Murder". A book of the same name was released a couple of years ago, but the work is currently getting another airing in the exhibition space at London's Rich Mix cinema. I saw the photos there for the first time last weekend and instantly wanted to talk to Antonio about them, so that's what I did.
VICE: So this project started after the murder of Jitka Nahodilova. Can you tell me about that?
Antonio Olmos: Yeah, I live in a part of London called Arnos Grove, near Arnos Park, and a friend of mine told me there had been a murder near there. I went to look at the house where the murder had happened, and it looked exactly like mine – but there was nothing to show there had been a murder there. Some of the neighbours didn't even know that anything bad had happened.
I looked in the local papers and there was only a little thing about it – it didn't make it into the national press or anything like that. [Jitka's murder] was a domestic violence case, and later I heard about another domestic violence murder that had happened in Walthamstow, so I started photographing these places, but I didn't really know where I was going with it. After that there was a murder involving teenagers in Walthamstow, and that made the news. I noticed then that there are differences in how things are covered.
Yeah, how did you keep track of all these murders if they weren't being covered in the press?
I found a website called Murder Map – which is run by this guy Peter Stubley – that covers all the cases going on in London. I started calling him, and I also started looking at the Metropolitan Police website, which tells you what they're doing. And then, over time, I started following certain crime reporters' blogs and tweets, and built up a network of contacts.
Who are these contacts? Is there, not a "murder enthusiast" community as such, but individuals who keep on top of this stuff?
Not about murder specifically, but there are a bunch of blogs and people writing about gangs, for example. And some of those blogs might occasionally talk about a murder in a more detailed way than the police ever would. There are also domestic violence charities that will tweet about murders. And then there was a guy I was following on Twitter who lives in Shepherd's Bush. Anything that happens in Shepherd's Bush, he tweets about it seconds later – I don't know how he does it. But the biggest things were the Met site and Murder Map.
Right. Where in London did you find yourself most often? Did it vary throughout the course of the project?
Well, obviously Lambeth has a big problem, as does Tottenham. The place I was most surprised by was Croydon – I went there several times, and didn't expect to. When I first came to London I had to go to Croydon to sort out my immigration papers and all that stuff, and I always thought it was a really nice neighbourhood. Places like Bexleyheath and Ealing, too – I didn't expect to go there but went quite a lot.
How long would you leave it before going to the scene of the crime?
I tried to wait two or three days usually, because if I went straight away I'd always see the same thing – loads of policemen and police cars. And the police would keep people away from the scene, but I wanted to get a little closer. When the initial stuff died down the police would leave, and there might be some forensic people there, but they didn't keep anybody away.
So you wanted the scene to settle a bit, basically?
Yeah, because if I went straight away it would have been the same photo all the time. I did sometimes go right away, though. There was a murder on Oxford Street, outside Foot Locker, on Boxing Day. I went there the day it happened – I thought it would make an interesting picture with the huge crowd.
Yeah. That's a bit of an anomaly in your work, isn't it? The thing that struck me about the majority of the photos was the mundanity of the scene – a street that could be anywhere in London – juxtaposed with the intensity of the crime.
Yeah, I knew that I'd be getting a different type of picture there. And yes, most of these other places are kind of anonymous. They're places most of us have never been to, and would never need to go to. There were a few better-known places – there was a murder in King's Cross, one in Farringdon, one in Marble Arch – but other than those it was mostly places I'd never been to.
Did shooting these photos affect the way you look at London? Knowing that someone was murdered in the house or park you're walking past must change how you see the landscape.
I wouldn't say it changed the way I feel about London. I quite like London – I think it's a great city. It's quite a safe city. In terms of the number of murders here, for a city of this size it's still quite small.
What it has changed is that I know London much better now, and I'm kind of amazed at how huge it is, and how isolated some parts feel. For example, somewhere like New Addington, or even Tottenham, feels really far away from central London. It's just a few miles away, but it feels like another world.
Did you shoot the scenes of many murders in the city's wealthier areas?
I never went to Kensington or Chelsea, but I did go to Richmond. The first case there was that of a cleaner who'd been murdered, and another was that of a mother who'd been killed by her schizophrenic son. I hardly went to South West London or the West End at all. It was mostly North East and South East London.
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Why do you think that is? Were many murders a result of youth violence?
Well, out of the 210 murders that I shot, I think there were only something like 20 gang-related ones, and maybe another 10 that involved young kids, which weren't really gang-related. The biggest single cause of murder was domestic violence, followed by people with mental health issues, and then some involving drink and drugs. If you listen to the media it seems like all murders in London have something to do with gangs. They get a huge amount of coverage compared to other types of murder, and I don't really know why.
Finally, did shooting the project affect your views on death in any way? Did it desensitise you whatsoever?
No, no. I never saw any dead bodies – the worst I saw was maybe some blood left on the ground. I think what it has changed is that I was one of these people who... I would walk by things like a memorial and not pay attention, or if I saw an ambulance going somewhere I wouldn't think about what it meant. But now I do. I'm now kind of hyper-aware of London, of where things happen, how things happen.
I hope I never get desensitised to death. I have two young kids, and since they were born if I hear about the death of a child it affects me much more. I think death bothers me a lot more as I get older than compared to when I was young. I don't think I could have done this project if I was desensitised to death, if I was blasé about it. I wanted to be extremely aware of the stuff that goes on around death.
See more photos from The Landscape of Murder below:
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