Travel

How One Photographer Captured the Changing Face of Immigration in His Hometown

He picked up his camera and started taking photos of the people who've made Sheffield their new home each year since 1945.

by Ellie Bramley; Photos: Jeremy Abrahams
Jun 6 2016, 12:00am

Pedro Fuentes got to Sheffield, England, from Chile in 1975. All images courtesy of and copyright of Jeremy Abrahams

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Pedro Fuentes remembers being a six-year-old in the Chilean city Valparaíso and reading the words "Made in Sheffield" engraved on his mom's cutlery. Years later, he was an engineer in Santiago, and when the company needed some specialist steel, he recommended buying it from Sheffield. Then, when a stint as a political prisoner led to him fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship, he went to the UK as a refugee and settled there, where he found a job in a steel mill.

Fuentes is just one of the people photographed by Jeremy Abrahams for his new project "Arrivals." Abrahams found immigrants who arrived in Sheffield, England, each year from 1945 to 2016, and recently photographed them in the location of their choice. The lives of all the subjects are, unsurprisingly, intertwined with the city—and sometimes more surprisingly, as in Fuentes's case, the relationship began even before they arrived.

Many of the narratives weave into big stories that make up Sheffield's singularity, from steel to Leppings Lane; another Chilean, Isilda Lang, remembers being on the pitch, working for the Red Cross, during the Hillsborough disaster. It was, she says, one of the two catastrophes she's faced in her life—the other being the Pinochet dictatorship.

Isilda Lang, also from Chile, arrived in 1977.

It's this variety of experience that Abrahams, an education specialist turned theater photographer, wanted to capture in the project that will be exhibited at Weston Park Museum in September, and—if the crowdfunding goes well—in a book.

This career shift wasn't so random. Now 60, Abrahams enjoyed taking black-and-white pictures as a younger man, developing them in his blacked-out attic. "Of course, they were never any good," he says. They were unpeopled landscapes—"I think I was trying to follow in the footsteps of Ansel Adams, and I was failing dismally, of course." We spoke on Skype about making a project like this at a time when a polemic debate on migration rages in the UK.

VICE: How did the idea for "Arrivals" first come about?
Jeremy Abrahams: It's strongly related to a friend who came to Sheffield at the age of ten, on the Kindertransport from Prague in 1939. She never saw any of her family again.

Her life is an inspiration—she had two children of her own, adopted one, fostered many others. She was a headteacher in Sheffield, and when she retired, she started visiting schools, talking about the Kindertransport—drawing parallels between events in the 1930s and today.

At the time [when I came up with the idea], the media was starting to talk about migration extremely negatively. I thought if I simply took a picture of one person who came to Sheffield each year from 1945 to 2016, and let them tell their stories in their own voices, then that would gently show that immigration's always been part of our lives—here are these people that are extremely well-rooted in our communities.

Why did you choose Sheffield?
It would have been quicker, and probably easier, to do it over the whole country. But I think it was always going to be Sheffield... each person chooses somewhere he or she wants the picture taken. So as well as being portraits of the individuals, it becomes a portrait of the city.

It's also a portrait of the pattern of migration—in the 50s and 60s, from the West Indies; from former British colonies; from Pakistan and Kashmir; then from Somalia during the civil war. Then later on—because there's free movement of labor—from Eastern Europe. You also see people coming because of the troubles in the Middle East.

Did you have a message in mind when you started the project?
I guess what I'm trying to do with the project is to make a gentle contribution to the debate—it can be a little strident, polarized. I thought that when people saw "Arrivals," simply presented as a collection of stories about people, it would humanize those people. Rather than being identified as "immigrants," they would be identified as themselves, as Justine, as Claudette.

People would see how they are rooted in Sheffield and read, in their own voices, why they left and why they chose here. And the incredibly positive attitude people have to the warmth of the reception they've had.

Lee Cho arrived from Malaysia in 1990.

Was it a conscious decision to make the project about all arrivals, not just refugees?
Absolutely. Some have come as refugees, like Tareq Al-Khaleeli, who fled to Syria from Iraq and was there when civil war started. There are others because of free movement within Europe, such as Magdalena Garpiel from Poland. Then there are people from former British colonies like Naveed Khan, whose father was in the British army.

The thing with immigration is that it's portrayed as homogenous, whereas there isn't one reason for immigration. There aren't even several reasons—there are countless reasons, as many reasons as there are people.

Tanya Schmoller arrived in 1945, from Montevideo, Uruguay.

Whose story were you most surprised by?
Tanya Schmoller's was one of the most amazing. Unfortunately, Tanya died in February. She was born in Montevideo. She hadn't gone to university and was working for the British Council. One Christmas, Allan Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, visited Montevideo. Tanya showed him round, and he asked her what she wanted to do with her life. She said: "I want to go to the London School of Economics." He said: "Come and work for me in London, and you can go in the evenings," which was exactly what happened. Also she was at the first World Cup Final in 1930—Uruguay versus Argentina.

Thomas Hezekiah Goode's story shows how the city has changed. He arrived in 1955 as, in his words, "one of the early wave of West Indian immigrants chasing a dream of a better life"—when there were the "no dogs, no Irish, no blacks" signs in the windows of apartments for rent.
Yeah, he's quite a character. He experienced those infamous signs for himself. He made the quite subtle point that he's a landlord now—he owns properties. I think that was gently put, but do you know what I mean...

Thomas Hezekiah Goode, who arrived in 1955 from Jamaica

Ghulam Nabi, who arrived from Kashmir in 1961, seems a great example of the positive impact arrivals can have.
Ghulam instigated a project to get funding to rebuild some housing in Darnall [a rundown area of Sheffield]—at the time, the quality was very poor. They were successful in getting a small estate built. At first, it was primarily Kashmiri people, but now there are people from all over the world. He's very proud of that.

Which location stood out for you?
Pierre Ngunda Kabaya's—he came in 2011 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I asked whether there was somewhere of importance to him. He said, "No, it's all beautiful." I thought, I like Sheffield too, but that's pushing it a bit! I asked if he was sure. He said, "Really, it's all beautiful," and got out his phone to show me a picture of the refugee camp he used to live in—he said, "Believe me, it's all beautiful."

I said let's go somewhere you can see all of it: the highest point in Sheffield, the roof of the university arts tower. It was a different way of showing Pierre in his new home, rather than in a specific location.

Pierre Ngunda Kabaya came from DRC in 2011.

How has working on this changed your relationship with the city?
It's been a process of integrating myself into the city, having driven out of it every morning for twenty-five years to go to work. Whenever I go to a shoot now, it's within the city, and it's going to places I've never been to. One day, I phoned the Pakistan Muslim Centre to ask whether I might meet people. The guy said: "Can you get down here in twenty minutes? It's Pakistan Independence Day, and everybody will be here." It's not somewhere I'd have ever thought of going.

The Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for an "Arrivals" book ends on Saturday, June 12.

Follow Ellie Bramley on Twitter.