East End – facts and narratives

Posted on November 24, 2013

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I have trying to figure out why certain of the image/text combinations for the East End project seem to work and others do not.

In writing my proposal for a major project (see here) I realised that the work is in effect reflects on the history of immigration in the East End through a series of episodes. Each image/text combinations describes an episode. The ones which work best are the ones where the text presents a  narrative that stimulates the viewer’s imagination – narrative that can be projected into the space of the photograph. Without a narrative the text is sterile and seems to simply anchor the photograph into a literal meaning. This is the source of my concern about the work appearing like a travelogue.

Looking at a couple of examples is perhaps the best way to illustrate this. The first one is the photograph of the Jamme Masjid Mosque on Brick Lane:

59 Brick Lane, Spitalfields November 2013

59 Brick Lane Spitalfields November 2013 –
La Neuve Eglise on the corner of Brick Land and Church Street (now Fournier Street was completed in 1743.
As Chapel, Church, Synagogue, Mosque it has remained the spiritual centre of Spitalfields. It has marked the passage of time and the movement of people through the place.

The text tells us that the building has been used as a place of worship for four religions and that it was built in the 18th century. In effect it anchors the meaning of the image. It invites us to simply consider it as a place of worship with considerable history. It  does not open up narratives to stimulate the viewer’s imagination.

For the purposes of comparison I have constructed a second image/text pairing which deals with religion. The image in this case is an Iphone photograph I took during a reconnaissance trips.

Entrance to former Synagogue at 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields November 2013 'It is a curious and touching sight to enter one of the poorer and more wretched places (chevrat) on a Sabbath morning. Probably the one you will choose will be situated in a small alley or narrow court or it may be built out in a back yard. to reach the entrance you stumble over broken pavement and household debris; possibly pick your way over the rickety bridge connecting it with the cottage property fronting the street. (Beatcice Webb 1889).

Entrance to former Synagogue at 19 Princelet Street, Spitalfields November 2013 –
‘It is a curious and touching sight to enter one of the poorer and more wretched places (chevrat) on a Sabbath morning. Probably the one you will choose will be situated in a small alley or narrow court or it may be built out in a back yard. To reach the entrance you stumble over broken pavement and household debris; possibly pick your way over the rickety bridge connecting it with the cottage property fronting the street.’ (Beatcice Webb 1889). 

I find this much more evocative. I begin to imagine poor Eastern European Jews stepping over this threshold to go through to the back of the house where there is a modest synagogue. I can imagine what it feels like to wander through to the back of this ramshackled property. I also get a sense of the modest poverty which pervaded the lives of the early Jewish immigrants.

Another example refers to the economic activity of the Bengali community in Banglatown. So far I have presented this image/text.

The 'Naz' reputedly the oldest Curry House on Brick Lane

The ‘Oldest Restaurant in Brick Lane’, November 2013 –
Lascar cooks have served on British ships for more than 200 years and in 1810 Sake Dean Mahomet, a Bengali traveller, surgeon and entrepreneur, founded the first Indian restaurant in London .
Between 1971 and 2011 there was a roughly eight fold increase in the number of Indian restaurants in Britain. 

Again the focus here is on facts. There is no story here just a history lesson and some economic data. This alternative is much more effective, at least I think it is.

The 'Naz' reputedly the oldest Curry House on Brick Lane

The ‘Oldest Restaurant in Brick Lane’ November 2013. –
By late morning the curry chef will be in his restaurant preparing for the day ahead. Between three and six he will take a break, whilst his under chefs prepare the vegetables and salads. By six he is back in the kitchen where he and his team will remain until midnight making and serving dishes, all the while surrounded by the smells of hot fat and boiled rice. After that, it is time to throw out the leftovers and make up the orders for the next day.

This serves to show the work ethic of the Bengali Curry chefs. It does not explicitly point to this being a reason for the success of curry houses in Brick Lane. The viewer can work that out for him/herself. What it does instead is tell a story which prompts the viewer to imagine what it is like to be ‘in the kitchen’ of a curry house surrounded by the heat and the smells of boiled rice and stale fried fat.

These may not be the final texts but serve to illustrate a point. I need to find ‘stories’ which not only inform  but also stimulate the imagination…..

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