Why Umbra Sumus?

The first question people asked me was ‘why are you doing a blog?’. The second was ‘why have you called it something daft like that?’.

The ‘why’ about having a blog is easy – the pretentious title is a little more tricky. Bear with me.

Those of you that know me know that I grew up in Hackney. A tricky place – “worst services, best crime” as Iain Sinclair would have it in That Red Rose Empire. In the 1970′s when the Holly Street estate in Dalston was a byword for all that was wrong with urban town planning, crime and decay, I sometimes used to go with my father to Brick Lane on a Sunday. The ‘Lane in those days was a very different place. Full of pavement stalls selling one shoe, dirty second hand clothes and the like. At one end would be the Spitalfields market where you could still see the tramps as we used to call them drinking themselves to death with meths around bonfires of refuse and rotting vegetables. At the other end would be Club Row, an infamous market for pets and small animals. You could buy all manner of bizarre creatures from all manner of bizarre creatures. At this end too would be the regular National Front demonstration: a handful of men with Union Jacks in a little corner snarling at the Bangladeshi’s that walked past. None of this meant particularly much to me as a boy. I used to walk through the swarming crowds oblivious to the now well documented history of the area. For my father, though he never spoke about it, this had a resonance. A ‘rubbish’ Jew as my non-Jewish mother always said (with a penchant for bacon and no idea of the religious duties thousands of years of Judaism had passed to him) we’d walk past the Nazis which of course echoed the speeches of Mosley that he would have heard in Ridley Road Market in the thirties (and indeed fiftees) as he grew. We’d also walk past the Mosque on Brick Lane that used to be a synagogue that was the heart of the old Jewish East end. On the side, high up – so far that if you looked, you’d certainly bump into someone coming the other way – was a sundial. The title page of this blog is the inscription on the sundial on that palimpsest of a building.

Built in 1743 the imposing square frame was originally a church built by the Huguenots, French Protestants exiled from their homelands who came to the area, a slum outside the city gates where they built beautiful houses and prospered. The inscription “we are but shadows” in Latin seemed to echo the refugee experience that I suppose I am part of. I’ve never worked much in England, never felt the need as many photographers do, to explore their  surroundings. For me, I was always interested in the Other. Perhaps it was about escape, a desperate run from Hackney. The world is a big place and we don’t have long: ‘we are but shadows’ reminds me of the impermanence and transitory nature of what we are – and I wanted to know as much of the world as I could. Photography has in some small measure allowed me to do that.
Ironically, when I started as a photographer I was drawn to these places that I had walked with my (even then elderly) father. Quite by accident I’d stumbled on the last days of the Jewish East End – specifically an organisation called “Food for the Jewish Poor” – a charity that had once given soup and later tins of food to the last elderly Jewish survivors of the area. I turned up and asked if I could hang around and take some pictures for my portfolio. Little did I know that I was following in the footsteps of the sadly underrated Sharon Chazan a young photographer who a few years before had undertaken a large project to record much of Jewish London and was murdered by one of her elderly subjects, Moshe Drukash. A strange, tragic happening in an area of strange, tragic happenings.

Shadows on shadows.

Here are some of the images that I made. I only found them a few days ago… They’ve never been seen publicly before and I hadn’t seen them for nearly twenty years…

An old man leaves the Soup Kitchen in Brune Street in East London which was erected by the Jewish community in 1902 to provide charitable support for Jewish immigrants to the area. The facility closed in the early 1990's as more and more of the original Jewish residents died or moved. The charity gave free food to elderly Jewish residents of the area

An old man leaves the Soup Kitchen in Brune Street in East London which was erected by the Jewish community in 1902 to provide charitable support for Jewish immigrants to the area. The facility closed in the early 1990's as more and more of the original Jewish residents died or moved. The charity gave free food to elderly Jewish residents of the area

An old man collects his grocery allowance from the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street near Brick Lane.

An old man collects his grocery allowance from the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street near Brick Lane.

An old woman collects her grocery allowance from the Soup Kitchen

An old woman collects her grocery allowance from the Soup Kitchen

An old boxer poses for the camera while he waits for his weekly food parcel from the Soup Kitchen at

An old boxer poses for the camera while he waits for his weekly food parcel from the Soup Kitchen

The Soup Kitchen is now expensive flats for wealthy City types and my father is long gone.

Umbra Sumus.

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3 Responses to “Why Umbra Sumus?”

  1. Sarah Says:

    After watching the docu re Sharon Chazan, I stumbled across yr fascinating blog while trying to find out more about her. I too, have memories of the old Brick Lane circa early 1980′s, when I lived in Leyton with a house full of students and bikers. We used to stumble through the Brick Lane market on a Sunday morning, hanging, listening to Hawkwind on our walkmans and pop into the bagel shop for breakfast.
    Now I live just outside Glastonbury and am an artist and writer about to return for my final year on creative arts degree. Just beginning to get interested in photography. Any tips for a beginner?

  2. stuartfreedman Says:

    Hello Sarah,
    Brick Lane has changed beyond all recognition for me – but then again that’s probably true for each generation. You should look at the work of the marvellous Czech photographer, Marketa Luskacova:
    http://www.marketaluskacova.com/
    who worked on Brick Lane for years and years. She belongs to that great tradition of humanist photography from the ‘Seventies (that I suppose would include amongst others, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Graham Smith and Chris Killip) that turned their lenses on Britain. Funnily enough, I used to share a printer with Luskacova – the brilliant Charlie at Bert Hardy’s old darkroom Grove Hardy in Waterloo (now sadly closed). I remember Charlie working on some of her prints. Beautiful and dark and full of humanity and humour.
    It’s a great pity that there’s so little on Sharon Chazan’s work available but I’m pleased that the recent BBC4 documentary received so much attention…
    Good luck with your course and in terms of tips, I can only say take a lot of pictures and don’t be daft enough as I was to try and make a living out of it.
    All best,
    Stuart

  3. » Blog Archive » The Englishman and the eel Says:

    [...] Like the long closed Jewish Soup Kitchen that I photographed at the start of my career (see here) these places are disappearing year after year. As I’ve said before, the corporate, identikit [...]