Kaleidoscope: Q&A with photographer Chris Steele-Perkins

For 'The New Londoners', Chris Steele-Perkins sought to pay homage to the diversity of London by photographing people who have made the city home. His photo series, which features in Kaleidoscope, is a reminder of how immigration has made London the incredible place it is today. Niloufar Haidari interviews him.

Chris Steele-Perkins, From the collection of: Somerset House
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The New Londoners by Chris Steele PerkinsSomerset House

What was the inspiration behind the project, and how did it come about?

There had been a lot of publicity recently about immigration and refugees - mostly negative, mostly sensational - riots in Calais, people drowning off the coast of Greece and so on. I wanted to do something because I believe that immigration is one of the great topics of our age. I wanted to address it some way, but not in the way that the mainstream media was largely attacking it. I came across the idea that in London, history has turned itself upside down - from being the centre of the world as it were, and commanding the world, and putting people in charge of the rest of the world, now the rest of the world are coming to England, and to London in particular. London has a population that is unheralded in human history, and that seemed like an interesting starting point.

I thought if you could do a portrait of the 'new Londoners' then you might be doing something different, and addressing the issue of migration from a position of celebration rather than condemnation. [The families] aren’t tourists who are passing through for one day; these are people who've invested themselves in living in London. My history is also one of migration - I'm one of the same people in that sense, and I'm in the book with my family. I was born in Burma, my mother's Burmese, my wife is Japanese, my half-brother is half-Australian, and so on. So I'm very much part of it, and all those things came together in the work that I did.

The New Londoners by Chris Steele PerkinsSomerset House

What story were you trying to tell about both London and immigration with this project?

Well, that London is probably the most vibrant, multicultural, multi-lingual, multi-everything city in the world. And it was, essentially, migration into London that has made it the place that it is. If we go back to Enoch Powell's speech – he was up in Wolverhampton but he was applying it to everywhere, and the threat that he posed of the River Tiber foaming with blood, was absolute nonsense! You've got the population of London which is [made up of] at least 1/3 migrants, and you've got an amazing, successful, hugely envied city, not a city laid bare by death and inter-racial violence. The narratives don't connect.

The New Londoners by Chris Steele PerkinsSomerset House

One of the things I found interesting was people who had photographs of other family members included in in their portraits. I thought that said a lot about the modern notion of family, especially for migrants who often leave family behind and have to create new families.

Well, it's always been a fluid idea hasn't it, the family. I think it just tends to highlight the fact that families are very different things to different people. You know, in some cases, family and friends meant family, and for others, father, mother and daughter meant family. But people were free to identify the notion of family however they want to.

Was it their choice to incorporate those photos into the portraits or was it your idea?

It was half and half. I would say to people before I took their photograph, if you've got anything that you want to put in the photograph - be it a cultural object, or wearing traditional clothing - I'm personally happy to do that, but I don't want to make you do it. If you feel more comfortable in a T-shirt and trainers, that's absolutely fine.

In fact, the picture that I've got of my own family - in the bottom left-hand corner, there's a little picture of my mum who's passed away, so that she's in the picture, too.

The New Londoners by Chris Steele PerkinsSomerset House

You set out to take photos of immigrant families from every country in the world. Did you manage it?

Well no, because you could go on forever. One of the things I did halfway through was reassess the notion of a 'homeland'. Just take the British Isles, it's already confusing. Is it Great Britain or is it the United Kingdom of Great Britain? Is it England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Identities change and can mean different things at different times. And if that can happen in the United Kingdom, then surely language groups and large family groups can extend the notion of nationhood to the places that they live. There were some fairly obscure places like Vanuatu in the Pacific Islands, and then there are currently “imaginary” places like Tibet, which doesn't exist as a country by UN terms.

There came a point, with Brexit coming up, when I thought this would be a good time to hang up the book. I could go on for another year, fill it with more families, but I think I had 164 families with close to 180 countries represented by them, and I thought enough is enough. [laughs]

The New Londoners by Chris Steele PerkinsSomerset House

What did you take away from the project? And what do you hope others will take away from it when they see it?

Without sounding too cheesy, for me it was sort of a feel-good project. Hopefully, people will think of 'The Other' as more like them. It's an old cliché that there's more similarities between us than things that divide us, and I hold that to be true as well. So that message is embedded in there I hope, and hopefully that will rub off on a few people.

The New Londoners by Chris Steele PerkinsSomerset House

Interview by Niloufar Haidari

The New Londoners features in Kaleidoscope at Somerset House, 12 June - 8 September 2019.

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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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