Roland Ramanan's Moving Photos of East London's Street Drinkers
The photographer has spent the past few years documenting the vulnerable community who spend their days in Dalston's Gillett Square as the area they know changes around them.
If you want to look at how London is changing, you need only look at Hackney. Of all the city's boroughs, gentrification is arguably most visible there; its community cafes now artisanal bakeries and bouji butchers, its housing situation now characterised more by £2 million two-bed flats than affordable accommodation for the families who've been living there for generations.
Ground zero is Dalston, with house prices in the area rising a massive 71 percent in the space of eight years, faster than anywhere else in East London. In the early days of all this – before Kingsland Road was known to most as an X Factor boyband and not the road that runs through Dalston – Hackney Council's Regeneration Committee decided to transform Gillett Street car park into Dalston's "town square".
The developer they brought in, Hawkins\Brown, described the space as "a disused car park surrounded by derelict buildings, inhabited by drinkers and drug dealers, and avoided by the local community". Fifteen years later, Gillett Square has certainly been regenerated, but it's still arguably just as popular with the groups the council were trying to oust as it ever was.
Photographer Roland Ramanan has spent the past three years documenting those who spend their days in the square, drinking and chatting and trying to avoid trouble from the police. Some are homeless, some suffer from mental health issues and most, he says, have alcohol or drug dependency problems. The series, however, isn't about pointing a finger at drug and alcohol abuse; instead, Roland hopes to tell the story of a group of vulnerable people left marginalised by the rapid social and economic change occurring around them.
I recently sat down for a chat with Roland about his Gillett Square project.
VICE: Hi Roland. When did you decide that you wanted to document the people who spend their days hanging out in Gillett Square?
Roland Ramanan: I'd started street photography in around 2012, and I knew Gillett Square because as a musician sometimes I played at the Vortex Jazz Club there. Initially I sort of sat down next to [the people drinking in the square] and said, "Would you mind if I photographed you?" Some of them said, "Are you with the police?" I still get asked that now, even after three years of working there.
Most of the people there had been local to the area for a long time, right?
Many of the residents I spoke to, particularly from the Afro-Caribbean population, have roots going back to that spot for a very long time, so some of them had known each other for over 20 years, and they talked about the time before Gillett Square existed [as it does now] – before the cooperative body came together to create Gillett Square. They were there long before it was a car park, and they have fond memories of sitting there with their brazier in the winter to keep them warm, helping people with their shopping.
For them it's a kind of a one stop-shop, social community hub – a place where they can get support from each other, and it still has that role in a way. Gillett Square is quite a unique space in that sense. There aren't many spaces like that left that I know of, certainly in this area of London, as most are being gentrified.
So there's a real sense of community there?
Well, I mean, they are certainly not a homogenous group. There was a group that had roots in the Afro-Caribbean population and they had known each other for a very long time, so they helped each other out – sometimes in terms of accommodation; one person might be sleeping on another's floor for a while, and I think they helped each other out a lot in those terms.
Other groups came and went. There was a Turkish group for a while, an Eastern European group. So there were different groups that would come together and interact with each other in that sense.
There are altercations in a couple of the photos. How would you describe the relationship the group has with the police?
Sometimes there was a lot of friction. I think in the last year it's calmed down a lot. But sometimes there would be rivalries and fights would flare up, particularly at the end of the day – people had been drinking more. But they usually quickly died down again and there was always a code among people that you would repay your debts – that you would help the next person, you would try to keep the peace if you possibly could.
When I started [the project] they used to get a lot more hassle from the police because it was a zone that was an allocated no drinking spot. So, as a result, most days the police would swoop in and demand that people give up their cans of beer.
I saw one poor woman who decided no, I'm not gonna give up my can of beer. So she was chased around the square, wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. Her jeans had fallen down, a friend was trying to pull them up. She was kind of standing [with her] trousers fallen down in the middle of the street while waiting for the police van to pick her up – and this was someone who is very vulnerable. It was quite sad.
I think [altercations involving the police] have eased off recently, and I think I'm right in thinking that there's no longer a "no drinking in public" sign. The community support officers have a good relationship with the people in the square – they kind of know who the characters are – and some of the police had a good relationship with the people in the square.
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There are ethics to be considered when photographing vulnerable people, and bearing in mind some of the group had issues around drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health in a few cases, how did that affect the way you worked?
I try to think what that person will think when they see the photograph, whether they'll think it's a truthful depiction, even though it may be very difficult to look at, or whether they feel I'm distorting things. I also have to be really clear with the people who are there. Why am I there? I'm there to take photographs of life as I see it, and it's a very fine balancing act. I think the way that I take pictures has changed over the course of the project. Some of my earlier pictures were more about me looking in from the outside and focusing on the drinking and the effect of that, [but I've moved] much more into getting behind that appearance and finding that individual story. So the later work is much more about individual stories. I've tended to move away from showing some of the more extreme effects of the alcohol. I feel I have a duty and responsibility to be able to show them in a different light – not necessarily to show them as angels, but to show other aspects of their personalities. But I make no apologies for showing the effects of [drinks or drugs], because I also think that's part of the story that people need to see.
What did you learn while shooting the project?
How hard some of the lives of these people are – many of them have died along the way, maybe not directly from alcohol, but probably a direct consequence of the life they were living. So maybe of a heart attack, or they had an accident because they may have been drinking, or an overdose.
I can think of six people who have died since I started the project. One them was a guy called Graham, who was a very eccentric character – a brilliant man. He was an artist and sculptor who would pass by the square sometimes. I interviewed him in his home and he was assessed as fit to work under the new welfare reforms. If you ever knew Graham, you would know that he was not fit for work – he had a lot of mental health issues and he was also facing with being evicted from where he lived because of the single bedroom rules – and he committed suicide. One of the things that happen with my photographs is that when someone dies, people will ask me for a photograph, or they'll use my photograph for a memorial service. It's a great sadness, but also a great honour.
Finally, what changes have you noticed in Hackney since you started the project?
One of the things I've noticed is the squeeze on welfare. [The people I've photographed] have really felt they are fighting a battle in terms of their assessment for disability payments, and it seems as if the rules are applied in a very draconian way.
Also, since I started, because of the massive explosion in the nightlife in Dalston Junction and the gentrification that it's bringing – I think they're feeling more and more isolated. So they've definitely felt changes in the area and are kind of wondering what their place is within that.
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