Feruza Afewerki lost four family members to the London tower block fire – in Gold & Ashes, the photographer captures the images and voices of survivors and the bereaved, looking to the future with hope
On June 14 2017, a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington. The blaze engulfed the building for 60 hours before it was finally extinguished, taking the lives of 72 people.
In the four years since, stories of the tragedy have dominated the headlines: then-prime minister Theresa May refusing to meet with victims; Stormzy’s impassioned Brits performance criticising the government’s response to the disaster; the revelation that nearly 100 other tower blocks had failed their safety checks, and that – three years on – 2,000 were still covered in the cladding that allowed the Grenfell fire to spread so quickly.
What often hasn’t taken centre stage is the stories of those who died in the fire, those who survived it, and those who lost loved ones. With her new photo book, Gold & Ashes, photographer and bereaved family member Feruza Afewerki wants to change this. Shot over two years, the collection of photos sees survivors and the bereaved share their memories of lost family and friends, and reflect on life after Grenfell.
“The photo book came about by a desire to see our stories told with dignity and truth,” Afewerki tells Dazed. “I grew tired of the lies and stereotypes in the media that portrayed who we are and our loved ones with a false narrative. My heart to see our stories and lives handled with care drove me to figure out how I could do that. I hadn’t been a photographer very long after the tragedy, but I felt called and drawn to share these stories, and I knew it was important we spoke for ourselves and not spoken for.”
Afewerki lost her older sister Amal, four-year-old niece Amaya, brother-in-law, and cousin in the tragedy. Amal moved into Grenfell Tower with her husband and daughter shortly before the fire, after living in Ladbroke Grove for over a decade. “After my niece was born, (Amal) wanted to create a home for her,” says Afewerki. “I saw her begin to decorate the places beautifully, and begin to make memories there. Although they didn’t live there long, I was looking forward to growing with them there.”
Having grown up in west London, Afewerki had a deep fondness for the area. “It really shaped my outlook,” she explains, “witnessing how cultures mix and the rich history of the people who lived there and fought for people’s rights. Freedom could be felt in the air.” However, since the fire, Afewerki has found it difficult to return. “Sometimes it feels like you can see the tower from everywhere. It has definitely cast a dark shadow, (reminding us) of the injustice of what governing bodies allowed to happen.”
Though, she adds: “I have a deeper appreciation for the people who have lived through it and shown so much heart and care for each other. I’ve never seen a community show up in the way this one has.”
Afewerki first connected with this community in April 2018 after attending one of the monthly silent walks in memory of those lost in the fire. It was here that the fledgling photographer learned of Grenfell United, a community of survivors and bereaved families. “Trauma and grief can be really isolating,” says Afewerki. “Connecting with others who have gone through the tragedy has been really comforting. By listening and sharing your story, you realise you’re not alone in this fight. I’ve gained a lot of strength by witnessing how others have coped and kept going.”
It’s both the feeling and direct contribution of this community that enabled the creation of Gold & Ashes. Alongside portraits of survivors and the bereaved are striking images of packed silent walks, memorials for those lost, and a community organising for justice. Ahead of the book’s publication on Thursday (July 29), some of the photographs were displayed at an outdoor exhibition on London’s Freston Road, and will remain on display until August 31.
“Trauma and grief can be really isolating. Connecting with others who have gone through the tragedy has been really comforting” – Feruza Afewerki
“I hope the community sees the power we hold, and that those affected feel comforted and heard by sharing our stories in this way,” Afewerki says of her desired outcome of the book. “Sharing our truth and stories is important because we’ve seen our histories get mistold so many times.”
For Afewerki herself, this creative outlet has helped her to process her own grief. “I really believe my big sister and niece have been guiding me along this journey,” she tells Dazed. “Through this type of memorialisation, we’ve been able to express the love we have for the loved ones we lost in a safe space. Going through such a public tragedy can take away what is sacred and important to you, but when you take the narrative into your own hands and empower each other to use our voice by listening and taking the time to understand, it is healing.”