Backgrounds: Portraits by Rachael Simões

Backgrounds was a photography project that took place as part of the
Kaleidoscope exhibition, aiming to create a portrait of 21st century multicultural
Britain. Photographer Rachael Simões reflects on her involvement with the
project, as well as her own cultural background and photographic style.

Rachael (2019/2019) by Timi Akindele-AjaniSomerset House

My mum is completely Portuguese, born and bred, and my dad is both Portuguese and Angolan and was born in Angola. During a civil war in Angola, my Dad’s family went to Portugal, and a few years later he met my mum at a school of professional studies.

They moved to the UK in 1994 with two children, after my Dad’s sister told my dad that London was full of jobs and less racist than their village in Portugal.

I was born in Goodmayes, like my other two siblings, in 1999. Me and my family reunite in Portugal once a year. My mum now lives in Spain, my dad is between Norway and Portugal, and me and my four siblings continue to live in the UK.

Rachel (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Rachel. City: London. Background: Jamaican Jewish


Since my mum works in the fashion world I grew up with countless ELLE magazines in the house, and it has undoubtedly influenced what I’m interested in capturing when I have a camera.

My photography is usually fashion, portraiture, documentary or a mixture of all. BARGAINS is the photo series I’m most proud of. It’s a documentation of my friends' lifestyles, who are majority working-class and very stylish.

I feel like I’m very new to photography, and I’ve become increasingly interested in it since finding the photography that documents stories similar to me and those around me. As a result, my friends are my favourite photographers, because they capture our surroundings.

I also practise videography, screenwriting and community art.

Janice, Joyce, Louis, Stefan, Ashton, Baylee, Darrell (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Janice, Joyce, Louis, Stefan, Ashton, Baylee, Darrell. City: London. Backgrounds: Goan, Mauritian, American mixed

Fred (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Fred. City: London. Background: British

Shelley, Robert, Joshua and Olivier (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Shelley, Robert, Joshua & Oliver. City: London. Backgrounds: Nigerian/Jamaican/English


With most of the people I spoke to during Backgrounds there was a running theme of mixed identity. The idea that the country where their parents are from would be their homeland, but they would also identify with being British since they were born here or lived here for a while.

I also photographed a surprising amount of writers. One, in particular, was writing a script about the complex history of her parents' countries politics at the time of them growing up. As an aspiring writer, I sometimes contemplate what I can and can’t write about my cultural history. My parents aren’t very talkative about their history, but I often think of using art as a tool to connect with it more.

Shimmy (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Shimmy. City: London. Background: Citizen of Nowhere

Monica & Lady San Pedro (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Monica & Lady San Pedro. City: London. Backgrounds: Spanish-Indonesian & Filipino

Sylvia, Lillian, Sophia & Annette (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Sylvia, Lillian, Sophia & Annette. City: London. Backgrounds: Nigerian, Jamaican/British & American


Backgrounds has been one of the most exciting projects, for me, to work on. I love the concept and I think it’s highly important to preserve the history of minority ethnic groups in the UK where it has previously been overlooked or erased.

Since we had the pleasure of shooting at Somerset House while celebrating Windrush weekend, it felt as if everyone shared the same excited spirit. I will cherish the joyful energy of the studio over that weekend, and the peaceful sense of solidarity we all shared.

As for my own practice, it’s given me more confidence in telling stories about and for people in Britain who share the same feelings about the current issues in our society.

Summer and Wynter (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Summer and Wynter. City: London. Background: British

Scherin (2019/2019) by Rachael SimõesSomerset House

Scherin. City: London. Background: Guyanese


As someone who is very interested in storytelling, I always think of how powerful photography is versus other art forms. Books and films can be ambiguous and have ideas left to interpretation, but I feel photography is the most minimalistic and perhaps most emotional form of storytelling.

Like all other art forms, photography can be studied by providing context. However, I think the silence of looking at photography and navigating its meaning based on how the details of it combine to evoke emotion in you is special.

I think it’s even more special to me now since I’ve started seeing photography from people who don’t consider themselves artistic and from communities who don’t have a voice in the mainstream. Although not artistically inclined, stories that are muted are being brought to life from the people themselves, thanks to the advancement and accessibility of technology today.


Backgrounds was inspired by Indian photographer Masterji's portraits of newly arrived South Asian immigrants and their families in Coventry. The project aimed to create a portrait of 21st century Britain today. We worked with five young Magunum-trained photographers who photographed visitors to Somerset House over the course of one weekend in June, and uploaded the portraits live to a dedicated Instagram account.

Follow @backgroundsproject / #backgroundsofbritain

The project launched at Generation Get Up! Weekend, a two-day programme of talks, workshops, screenings and food marking the first national Windrush Day at Somerset House.

Backgrounds is a collaboration with Create Jobs, conceived by creative director Darrell Vydelingum as part of Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, a free photography exhibition exploring what it feels to live as an immigrant, or descendant of immigrants, today.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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