Book: Usborne, M. I’ve Lived in East London…

This work was recommended to me by my tutor, and after looking at what I could find of it online I was so taken with it I ordered a copy of the book, and am very pleased I did, as there are about seven or eight times more images in the book than I’d found online, and the profile Usborne presents of his subject Joseph Markovitch is consequently seven or eight times richer and deeper even than I’d thought. The project is also a fascinating commentary on this part of east London, which has undergone a huge transformation since 1983 when I arrived in London from university and took a job as a care assistant at the Richard Cloudesley School for children with special needs, a stone’s throw from Old Street. In those days the area was very run-down and exclusively working class, with a reputation for low-level crime. The one exception was a live music venue in Hoxton Square called the Bass Clef, which was always a big problem to get home from if you missed the last tube because cabs never went anywhere near the area at night.

By photographing Joseph Markovitch in this now thriving and youth-orientated part of London, Usborne brings these contrasting iterations of the area face to face, and it is uplifting to find that the narrative of this encounter is framed not in terms of gentrification but as an ongoing process of change that a long-term resident like Joseph finds interesting rather than threatening or alienating. His willingness to embrace the new and the different is what makes him an engaging and likeable subject, and Usborne portrays this with great sympathy and subtlety, never slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia.

I tried to analyse how Usborne achieves this in specific practical terms and made the following observations:
– He includes many different kinds/styles of image, which collectively present what feels like a fully rounded profile of his subject.
– Many images portray Joseph apparently incongruously in the setting of modern-day Hoxton/Clerkenwell/Shoreditch, which superficially highlights his alienation from the area he has inhabited for a long lifetime. However, his evident engagement with the modern-day people and environment of the area, illustrated both through his body language in the images and his words in the accompanying texts, turns the impression around and shows that he actually remains deeply embedded in the area and embraces the changes. These images also have a wider resonance beyond Joseph and East London, and speak to the special willingness that London has to embrace and absorb change and diversity.
– Intermittent images show Joseph engaging with objects that interest him: a plaque on a wall, a film show, a book about Africa and another about celebrities. These give us a feel for his preoccupations and character.
– Images scattered throughout the book show Joseph’s own home and personal possessions. A betting slip, a near-empty refrigerator, a teletext screen, a crumpled family photograph, a belt, bus ticket and keys. These bleak images show the frugality and indeed poverty of his personal existence and stand in stark contrast to the modern and vibrant environment of the area beyond his home. But Usborne avoids pity and political polemics by showing us that these objects have emotional significance to his subject.
– In many images Joseph carries a plastic supermarket shopping bag, including the series of eight in front of Rizla-style graffiti lettering, where he wears the same clothes but has a different bag in each image. Usborne tells us that the bags contain a small carton of orange juice. This recurring motif tells us a lot about Joseph’s quiet self-sufficiency.
– Several images show Joseph in encounters with objects from the modern world that we know he does not himself possess: a golden trainer, a micro car, a medium/large format camera, a laptop. He seems intrigued, if somewhat bemused, by these trappings of 21st century life; envy or resentment at being excluded from the benefit of enjoying these objects have no place in his mindset.

All in all, this book is a fascinating, moving and insightful study of a person and a part of London. I have learned a lot from it, and hope to apply some of the lessons to my own future work.

References and resources

Usborne, M. (2013) I’ve Lived in East London for 861/2 years. London: Hoxton Mini Press.