Kaleidoscope: Q&A with photographer Teresa Eng

Somerset House

Teresa Eng specialises in photography projects that unfold over an extended period of time, revisiting places over the course of a few months or years. For her project 'Elephant', she documented the people and places of Elephant & Castle, in the borough of Southwark, where she lives. Niloufar Haidari interviews her.

Elephant, Teresa Eng, 2018/2018, From the collection of: Somerset House

What made you choose this subject?

A lot of my work is about transition and change. It reflects my own background of being a Canadian and having lived in London for the past 10 years.

I became aware of gentrification while living in New York. The neighbourhood where I lived was a predominately African American community, mixed in with art students and creatives. As organic supermarkets and trendy restaurants popped up, it pushed people from lower incomes further out from the city.

I could see the same cycle happening in Elephant & Castle, where I studied and now live. As an artist, one has to be creative in finding accommodation in areas that are overlooked by developers. However, I also recognise the impact this has on the gentrification of a neighbourhood.

I see Elephant as an archive of the changing nature of neighbourhoods and cities. I've been working on Elephant for six years now and, in that short time, the area has changed dramatically. I'd like to make this a 10 year project, or until the estate at the end of my street gets demolished and rebuilt.

Elephant, Teresa Eng, 2018/2018, From the collection of: Somerset House
Elephant, Teresa Eng, 2018/2018, From the collection of: Somerset House

How did you ensure your work was sensitive to the people you were photographing? Was there an element of gaining trust?

I’m genuinely fascinated by people and I think that curiosity comes across when I approach my subjects. We live in an age where so much communication is done with screens, so maybe that face to face interaction with strangers is welcome.

What story do you think Elephant & Castle tells about immigration in Great Britain?

I find the area to be very vibrant and diverse. The longer I work on this project, the more I see the layers of history of the area. I've met the older generation of South Londoners, whose families immigrated from Ireland. There’s also a large Afro-Caribbean, African and South American community that you see on East Street market and in churches dotted around the neighbourhood.

Elephant, Teresa Eng, 2018/2018, From the collection of: Somerset House
Elephant, Teresa Eng, 2018/2018, From the collection of: Somerset House

What is your favourite photo from the series, and why?

I have a soft spot for Jessica, who's on top of the mantelpiece [at the gallery]. When I met her, I found out she's a makeup artist. There’s something regal about her in her pink jumpsuit and perfectly coiffed hair and makeup, as she’s stepping out of her car. Having her and Kendra’s portrait above a fireplace in a Grade I listed Georgian building subverts a space which traditionally would have hung portraits of old white men who held positions of power.

Elephant, Teresa Eng, 2018/2018, From the collection of: Somerset House

Interview by Niloufar Haidari

Elephant features in Kaleidoscope at Somerset House, 12 June - 8 September 2019.

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