Shortly after midnight on June 14, the call went out: Grenfell Tower was on fire. For the next sixty hours, the building burned and the world watched with horror as the tenants’ worst nightmare came true. For the past four years, the Grenfell Action Group had gone on record, filing official complaints that the building was a firetrap; their concerns had gone unaddressed and ignored – until it was much too late.
As of mid-July, police confirmed that at least 80 people have died but only 45 of the dead have been identified. Residents believe the number of deaths is likely over 120. More than 150 homes were destroyed, leaving survivors homeless and at the mercy of public aid, which has sparked a new round of conversation and debate. As victims face the profound challenges of recovery and re-housing, their plight has become fodder for competing narratives from people on all sides.
Within the noise, a silence exists, the silence of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves. Their faces radiate from handmade posters hung in their memory: the missing and the dead whose absence haunts those who live. Headlines rage and roar, overshadowing the humanity and the need to memorialise all that has been lost.
“Within the noise, a silence exists, the silence of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves”
Photographer Brian David Stevens, a former resident of west London, found himself returning to the scene day after day, walking the streets, being in the presence of those who came to honor the dead. Concerned that in the fog of confusion, the victims will be forgotten, Stevens has focused on documenting the memorials, which serve as a place for people to gather and pay their respect, to grieve openly and find solace and support from others who struggle to cope with the tragedy.
Stevens’ connection to the community goes back two decades. He moved to the west London in 1998, where he lived and worked for ten years, getting to know the people and the neighborhood as only an insider can. In 2004, he created Notting Hill Sound Systems, a series of photographs documenting the central nervous system of Carnival. In 2016, he decided to reprise the project, which was just released in a new book from Café Royal.
Although he no longer lives in west London, the Grenfell Tower fire brought him back to its streets to reflect on the human toll the fire has cost, not only with the death of the innocent but of the burden the survivors are forced to bear living with untold trauma and grief. His photographs will be on view at The Northern Eye International Photography Festival, North Wales, Monday 9th October – Saturday 21st October 2017. All money raised will go to the Grenfell appeal. Below, Stevens speaks with us about his work.
I’d like to begin with your background in west London to give readers a sense of your personal relationship to the community. What was it like living and working there?
Brian David Stevens: When I first moved to London, I didn't really know many people so I'd wander off and explore by foot. I shot for a gallery in Ladbroke Grove and started exploring from there. West London is full of cultural history from race riots and performance to (graphic artist and music video director) Barney Bubbles and Notting Dale. All these things could be mapped with your eyes, head, and feet.
I can feel this sense of history and community in Notting Hill Sound Systems. There’s a sense of street life that you won’t find anywhere else. What inspired you to begin the series in 2004?
Brian David Stevens: I'd paid for university by working as a roadie, so I developed a love of speaker stacks. The Carnival ones are great because a lot of them are still handmade and have lots more character, sonically as well as visually. Obviously, when you photograph them in empty streets they lose their context and become sculptural forms, modern monoliths, new henges, and places of worship. Without the context, you view them in a very different way.
Over the decade that you lived there, did you notice any changes to the neighbourhood? Was gentrification an issue?
Brian David Stevens: It's happened to all of London: rents go up, you move around, moving further away from the centre, but when as this happens the centre becomes far less interesting, doesn't it? That fact seems to have been missed.
“I knew I had to try to make honest, respectful work” – Brian David Stevens
Can you tell us about your response to learning about the Grenfell Tower fire. When did you realise it was something you had to photograph?
Brian David Stevens: Pretty much straight away. I was familiar with the west London landscape and felt I should be doing something – even if it was just making pictures. I knew I had to try to make honest, respectful work.
What is it like returning to the scene and looking at it so intensely?
Brian David Stevens: That's kind of how I work: you have to immerse yourself in the subject. But no matter how many times I went back, each time I saw the burnt out husk of Grenfell Tower, it utterly floored me. It never became ‘normalised', it was still utterly shocking. Every day I just walked around the site making pictures, but mainly just looking.
Your photographs create the feeling of a profoundly spiritual experience: approaching the site, people from all walks of life gathered to pay respect in quiet reflection. As you return to the block on a daily basis, how would you describe the mood at the site?
Brian David Stevens: The tube station (Latimer Road) is next to Grenfell Tower and, still, weeks later, the tube goes quiet as it passes, the streets are quiet. There are huge amounts of anger there under the surface. The presence of the burnt out block casts a huge shadow over the area. It's been described to me as a huge tomb in the sky. It must be incredibly difficult to get on with life seeing it there every day.
What kind of access were you able to get – and not get – on the scene?
Brian David Stevens: I got the same access as a normal person that was important. I didn't want special access, I wanted to see what everyone else saw. I just walked around, circling the block, in the same state of shock as everyone else.
I took these pictures as a member of the public. Sure I'm a photographer but I didn't want to use privileged viewpoints. I used a camera with a fixed lens that gives a similar viewpoint to your eyes. You are seeing what I'm seeing and hopefully, nothing is getting in the way of that vision.
One of the touching things about this series is the way in which it keeps the focus on the victims and the survivors. There’s no redirection to other narratives, deflection, or disinformation at hand. Instead, there is the reminder of the human loss and cost of this tragedy. Why did you choose to focus on this aspect of the story?
Brian David Stevens: Because those faces look out at you from the street. Posters for the missing and the dead are everywhere in the area – they were a constant when I was photographing. It was important to record these before the posters faded and disappeared and the victims became numbers and statistics. The faded images were important.
“The presence of the burnt out block casts a huge shadow over the area. It's been described to me as a huge tomb in the sky. It must be incredibly difficult to get on with life seeing it there every day” – Brian David Stevens
How has the recurrent exposure to the actual site informed your feelings and thoughts about how it is being discussed?
Brian David Stevens: I've seen the story being exploited by all sides of the debate, without much thought for the actual victims of the fire. It's a complex situation and it helps nobody to describe it in soundbites. The BBC has been doing a very good job there. People are angry though and people are in pain, this must be realised.
This tragedy makes me think about “life after death,” about how people who survive are living through layers of trauma: both having experienced it, and now having to live with that and return to “regular life” with open wounds that may never fully heal. I was thinking about this with your photos, that you are honoring both those who died – and those who lived.
Brian David Stevens: The main thing I want to produce is work that's truthful and respectful. I can only imagine what victims' families are going through. I can only hope that the work can make people think what has happened to these people and this community and maybe feel a little empathy towards them.
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