Liz Hingley speaks with Anneka French about her current touring exhibition and publication, both titled Home Made in Smethwick. A commission by Multistory, the project was developed between 2014 and 2016 and includes portraits and still lives taken in the homes, social spaces and work places of residents of Smethwick, a town in Sandwell which borders Birmingham.
How did the commission for Multistory come about?
Exploring and celebrating the ever-evolving ethnic diversity of cities is an ongoing inspiration for my work. When I was a child growing up in the West Midlands, our Yemeni neighbours often bought over fresh malawah bread; I also have strong memories of scrumptious Caribbean rice and peas eaten at the houses of Barbadian friends.
I was based in Shanghai at the time Multistory commissioned me as part of their Black Country Stories series and I jumped at the opportunity to begin a project which would reconnect me with my West Midlands roots. Multistory had already been working with Martin Parr for four years in Black Country as well as with other photographers I highly respect, such as Mark Power and David Goldblatt, and we wanted to further explore the richness of Smethwick, a small town in the Sandwell, in the Black Country, that is one of the most culturally diverse areas in the UK.
My practice and perspectives developed significantly during the three years I lived in China creating the work Shanghai Sacred whilst spending the summers producing Home Made in Smethwick in the UK. Living between two very diverse locations gave me an understanding and compassion for those who carry their sense of home from place to place.
It has been a personal and surprising journey of discovery and I am only just beginning to reflect on and appreciate this experience.
Smethwick has a rich and significant social and political history within the West Midlands and beyond. What specifically drew you to Smethwick?
Smethwick emerged as an industrial centre during the nineteenth century. Rows and rows of tightly packed terraced houses were planted on the surrounding farmland to accommodate the factory workers arriving on masse from the countryside. Since then, these modest houses have become the spaces of new beginnings and have been continually adapted and personalised to suit myriad lifestyles and home-styles. From the 1950 onwards, the paths leading to these homes have extended further and further across the globe.
I was interested to capture how the traditional Victorian terraced houses have been transformed to suit cultures and tastes from around the world. On my initial wanderings, I found Smethwick’s densely populated streets surprisingly quiet. Only a rich mix of smells seeping out from behind closed doors filled the silent air. Naturally, when resources to make a home in a new environment are limited, food comes before wallpaper or even beds. The taste of home feeds both the body and the mind.
Many of the photographs are based in people’s homes. How did you begin and build up relationships with the sitters of your portraits? What was this process like?
I was initially drawn to photography by the opportunity it offers to have uniquely intimate experiences with strangers whom I would not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Like all relationships, these particular exchanges are built on trust and are intuitive so therefore hard to articulate in words. I want to portray people rather than subjects.
Posing the simple question, ‘What is your favourite recipe?’ from door to door, I was welcomed into homes to join the preparation of personal dishes rich with meaning and memory. Conversation flowed over the kneading of family-size naans; it continued over the harvesting of herbs grown from seeds stuffed into suitcases; and while waiting for blueberry crumble to bake with a cup of Pakistani pink tea. Cooking and eating together drew out remarkable life stories and revealed the complex journeys that have brought people from 130 different countries (and sometimes from just down the street) to their Smethwick home.
All those I met contributed to this celebration of the social heritage and culinary richness of Smethwick today. With the aim of capturing the essence of a community, I have been the lucky guest at their table and passenger on their journey.
There is a sense of intimacy and generosity within the work. In what ways does your project explore a sense of family and community?
My photographs are developed through collaboration. I seek opinions on how people wish to be represented and allow them to intervene in positioning themselves. The majority of my time is spent engaging through observation and conversation. After developing an understanding of my subjects and their contexts, I then see the moment to capture.
Using digital camera equipment enabled me to share the results and offer people copies of their images quickly and easily; this was crucial in building trust and sustaining relationships. Returning these photographs led me to engage in further discussion with the individuals. People’s quotes are an integral part of the Home Made in Smethwick book.
How do the portraits, still lives and recipes that you collected intersect with one another?
Rather than a cookbook, this collection of portraits and recipes reveals how food can act as a bridge from one continent to another; from one generation to the next; and from one house to its neighbour. The tastes of home are never left behind; they accompany people through their lives. They cement relationships and are passed on and transformed by new generations and new contexts. With this series I hope to celebrate the social heritage and culinary richness of Smethwick today and so reveal another perspective on the migration experience.
In the book the recipes are printed on greaseproof-like transparent paper and inserted over the portraits, opening as doors into the intimate space of peoples front rooms.
How does being an anthropologist feed into your photography?
Photography gives me an insight into people’s intimate stories and experiences. It also enables me to reflect on my own perspectives and feelings about life. I trained as a photographer and then studied anthropology; my work brings these two interests together. I tend to immerse myself in long-term projects that require in-depth research. This led me to begin collaborating with academics to develop the visual side of their research into society. I enjoy the challenge of finding ways to communicate complex issues through imagery and aim to continue producing work which bridges art photography and social research. It is an exciting intermediate space of constant discovery.
What are your hopes for the legacy of the project?
The UK is in a crucial time of social assessment and reflection and it is vital that we build a bigger more empathetic picture of ourselves. I hope that this work can become part of this dialogue and remain as an active historic document of Smethwick reveals today.
Home Made in Smethwick is currently on display at Blackheath Library. Hingley’s publication can be purchased here.