Photography

One city, 187 countries: photographing London's cultural diversity

The New Londoners project looks inside the homes and into the lives of a cross-section of cultures who call Britain's largest city home. Thursday, 18 April

By Simon Ingram
Photographs By Chris Steele-Perkins

“Fifty percent of my photographic life I’ve spent photographing England,” says Chris Steele-Perkins, the man behind an expansive project entitled The New Londoners, which he describes as ‘a celebration of the fabulous cultural richness of our capital.’ 

Steele-Perkins, a reportage photographer for nearly 50 years, has documented diverse subject matter: from conflict zones to nightclub fights, from seething inner cities to rural practices, and from politicians to subculture. The New Londoners was his way of gathering together people who from the 195 states recognised by the UN under one uniting concept: all, today, call London home. He didn’t quite manage every country, but he came close: 164 images, featuring subjects from a total of 187 countries. And Steele-Perkins’ family was one of them.

“I always knew that I wasn’t entirely English, because my mother was Burmese,” he told National Geographic UK. Born in Rangoon in 1947, in his introduction to The New Londoners, Steele-Perkins describes being ‘taken’ from his mother in Burma by his military father to be raised by ‘dutiful white English relatives’ in Somerset. “My father used to bang on when I was a teenager about the ‘bloody foreigners’ coming in,’ and I was getting old enough to say ‘well, I’m one,’ and he would say ‘you’re different, because you’re my son.’ Which didn’t make a lot of sense. Since then, I’ve always been on a bit of quest to discover who the English are, and who I was.” 

The New Londoners was born when Perkins was asked to shoot some portraits of people who had come to England to get away from war. “I started to get really interested in it, and saw another project, which was much bigger, that looked at this new demographic, this statistic that something like 37% of Londoners were born elsewhere.

The criteria was that at least one person in each family, or image, was born outside the UK. Then it came to finding his subjects – in itself a sort of detective story that visited almost every country in the world, but without leaving London. Steele-Perkins began leafleting community centres, libraries, and researching online. “For instance if I wanted to find someone from Somalia you would start with Somalian community centres, or restaurants, and start hunting from there. Schools are where everyone mixes, the parents talk at the gates, a lot of friendships are formed there. Someone might mention that their kids go to school with a Malaysian family and I’d asked to be put in touch. And so on."

The background

The project’s images, gathered over four years from 2014 to 2018 – are by their nature diverse, but not simply due to the origin of their subjects. “I tried to stick to families where I could, in their own home,” says Steele-Perkins. “So there was a consistency in that regard, and also the sense of them belonging here, that they had a home here. A deeper connection.” 

Steele-Perkins told each of his subjects the shoot and accompanying interview would probably take 2 hours. “99% I’d never met before. It was a great leap of faith on their part. For me, I’m going to a place, I’m trying to read the people, how they come across, how they stand, how they sit, what are the kids up to. Someone might mention a mother, they might have a picture, so maybe I might try to slip it in somewhere.” 

“I’m very happy to get some little places in like the Chagos Islands and Abakhazia, or the Marshall Islands. But I was keen to get people from a whole range of backgrounds,” he continues. “From people who perhaps worked for an insurance company and were moved with their jobs, to refugee stories – such as the Libyan lady who married a Pakistani, and wasn’t allowed back into her own country because Gaddafi had made this illegal.” 

“I felt a change in the project after the Brexit vote. I had one family specifically who said to me, “We feel less welcome here now.””

Chris Steele-Perkins

The backdrop

Part of Steele-Perkins' motivation came from a desire to create a ‘plea for tolerance’ – something which one particular political development during the shoot threw into sharp relief. “I felt a change in the project after the Brexit vote,” he says. I had one family specifically who said to me, “We feel less welcome here now.” People became more conscious that racism was still out there. Before the vote when I approached people they would be very keen to be a part of it. After, I’d get more people saying to me, ‘I don’t really want to be exposed’.” The book to accompany the project was published in the weeks around the date the UK was due to leave the European Union. At the time of writing the Brexit issue is still at deadlock, and a new date uncertain. 

But while the political future remains unclear, one particular image drew the project’s circle closed back to its personal origins: a portrait of Steele-Perkins’ family. “About halfway through I thought, I’ve got to do Burma, and I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t do my own family.” he remembers. “My mother died about 10 years ago. But I made sure there was a little picture in there.”  

The New Londoners is now a book and an exhibition at both The British Library and the Migration Museum in Lambeth.

This month National Geographic Magazine is celebrating Cities. Find out more about this special global issue by clicking here.

Photograph captions were written by the photographer for accuracy.