Self Doubt and ‘Umbra Sumus’…

Posted on November 18, 2013


I have been thinking a lot about how I want viewers to respond to my East End work. At the moment I’m very concerned that it is coming over as a travelog or worse still a tourist brochure…this place is where this event took place and so on. This is absolutely NOT what I’m aiming for with the work.

What I am really want for is for viewers to be psychological and emotionally engaged by the text/image combinations. I want them to imagine what it would have been like to be there at the time, to imagine how as an immigrant they would have felt and to think about the social issues that flow from this.

Some of my image/text combinations seem to prompt this kind of response. The image of Cable Street for example is moody and expressive in style and the text adds to the emotional charge with a graphic description of what occurred in that place back in 1936.

Other image/text combinations read more like the dreaded travel brochure. The picture of the Curry House on Brick Lane alongside statistics on the growth rate of Indian Restaurant businesses is very matter of fact and is pretty well devoid of emotion.

Another concern I have is the lack of a consistent style for the photographs and a clear rationale for how the aesthetics supports my underlying concept. My current photographs range from chiaroscuro drama to picture postcards. The images don’t have a strong signature.

I was in Brick Lane today and I started thinking about the inscription on the sundial of the Jamme Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane. The sundial was placed on the original building when it was a Huguenot church and  has remained in situ for 250 years. It reads ‘Umbra Sumus’, which is a quotation from Horace. It means ‘We are shadows’ and refers to the transient nature of human existence.

The quotation is very apt in the context of my own work, which is about the history of the East End and the ephemeral nature of its immigrant population. I began to wonder if I could use the metaphor of shadows as traces of people from the past in my photographs. This would suggest that I should adopt a low-key presentation with chiaroscuro effects, as in the Cable Street image, throughout the series.

This aesthetic is inherently more dramatic and expressive. The darkness of the images could also suggest that the places are haunted by their past…… and I might even be tempted to call the work ‘Umbra Sumus’. I have reworked the book format to better fit with this concept, although some of the images will need to be reshot at twilight/night-time.  Food for thought….

Umbra Sumus cover