Images of working class Londoners in full joy mode
In his debut monograph Bearing Witness, London-hailing photographer Emmanuel Cole celebrates the beauty of overlooked communities in the capital
image Emmanuel Cole
words Lucy O'Brien
Big Ben; Buckingham Palace; the good old Thames river - London is hardly short of landmarks that help tourists from around the world identify the historic city. But for the capital’s working-class city-dwellers, the London they know and love manifests in a very different landscape. For these communities, the streets of Notting Hill, Peckham’s carboots, South’s string of Morley’s chicken shops and the local Londis convenience stores are its landmarks. This is the world that born-and-raised Londoner turned prolific street photographer, Emmanuel Cole, has dedicated his career to capturing.
For Cole, London is defined by its inhabitants: generations of working-class locals and immigrant communities that are the backbone of this culturally-rich city. His documentary photography and portraiture is committed to giving visibility to people and places too often overlooked, demonised or stigmatised by society.
The artist, who now lives in Peckham, made his start by posting on Instagram in the 2010s, “back when they gave small accounts a chance,” Cole recalls. As his following grew, so did his fascination with photographing unseen faces and stories of urban city life, the works are an antidote to the gentrification and erasure of working-class London that has ripped through the city in recent years.
Over a decade worth of photography has now culminated in his first published monograph, Bearing Witness. Filled with photos taken from 2012 through to 2022, the photobook takes final shape as a love letter to the people and cultures he has come to admire as a lifelong Londoner. Finding beauty in the mundane and capturing intimate moments shared between friends, families and communities on the streets of the capital, Bearing Witness is a tender documentation of the joy and resilience that permeates London’s working-class communities.
In the wake of him celebrating his first physical published work, woo caught up with Cole to reflect on this canon moment in his career, his favourite London spots and his ever-changing relationship with the city he has long called home.
Tell me about your London upbringing, what was it like?
Emmanuel Cole: I was born in Hammersmith, apparently. I say apparently because I have no real connections to West London. I grew up in East London, mainly Hackney: places like Dalston, Homerton and Clapton to be exact. My parents broke up when I was young and my dad was based in Tottenham, so I have quite a connection to the Seven Sisters area. They’re the main areas that shaped me. I kind of had no real connection to South East London, to be honest. I did a bit of travelling in 2015 and when I came back to London, I was pretty much homeless. I had a friend living in Brockley and she offered me a sofa. I started getting to know Brockley and Peckham; one thing led to another and I never really left.
How has your relationship with London changed over the years?
My relationship with London was a bit confusing at the beginning. I came from quite a strict family, so when I was growing up as a kid I wasn't really out and around and experiencing the energy of the city properly. The London that I got to see in terms of the streets was mainly through the passenger seat of a car, when we'd be driving to relatives and going across the city. By the time I was finishing secondary school, I wanted to get out of this place. But I ended up having a change of heart last minute, and didn’t go to uni. I went straight into work which then allowed me to move into accommodation in London - there I started to meet people and go out partying in different areas of London. I started to realise how cool the city really was.
What would you say some common misconceptions about London and its communities are? How does Bearing Witness challenge them?
I feel like a lot of people might think that the communities I've photographed in Bearing Witness are not approachable - if they’re not from London. Like, for example, the Grime scene. I have friends from outside of London who have said things to me like: ‘oh shit, man. It must be crazy. It must be dangerous. What about all the stabbings and muggings?’ My work is to show that we’re regular people who are really happy and living their best lives.
Do you have a favourite moment, encounter or memory that sticks out to you during your time photographing London?
I have a picture in the book of this guy with a really big stab wound on his stomach. And that was a beautiful moment because the man was by no means gangster or anything. He was very calm and chill. He showed me the scar and told me how it happened; it seemed like he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I never saw him again after that. Years later I randomly decided to post the photo, and someone who had recognised the scar tagged him. The guy privately messaged me and said: ‘you've posted this picture on my birthday and I just want to say thank you. I'm abroad with my partner and we just celebrated my life, realising how lucky I am to have survived something so raw.” I never thought I'd get this kind of message.
Where is your favourite area to shoot in London?
Notting Hill during the Carnival. There's nothing that comes close to it to be honest. It's just culture and energy and music but on steroids. It almost feels surreal. Many times I've had to go to Portobello the next day, and it's almost hard to believe that that energy passed through those streets the night before. After that, I'd say Peckham is a favourite of mine specifically because I'm from a Nigerian background and I just felt like that area has a lot of ties to Nigeria - some people call it Little Lagos. Be it the smell of the food or the music, I really feel at home in that area.
What do you want people to take away from observing your images?
I hope that they're getting an insight into some of the communities that don't always have a positive light shone on them. I'm reminded that there's a lot of joy in these places. And there's a lot of things going on in the streets - you just have to pay attention. I hope it lets people know that anyone can make something like this project happen. You just need to take the time to slow down, enjoy it and really take in your environment.
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