Photographer provided camera phones, advice and direction to those affected by disaster
By Rob Nowill
The photographer Juergen Teller has teamed up with 20 young people affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster, in a project that aims to document their lives and perspectives on the fallout from the fire seven months ago.
Teller, an internationally renowned photographer who has shot advertising campaigns for fashion designers including Marc Jacobs, Céline and Vivienne Westwood, lives and works in Ladbroke Grove in west London and witnessed the blaze first-hand. He was keen to find a way to contribute to the local community. “I’ve lived in this area for 30 years,” he says. “I simply felt that I had to do something.”
During a series of workshops at his studio, the contributors were offered advice and direction by Teller, and provided with camera phones with which to capture the images shown in a 30-page portfolio published in i-D magazine. It was, for Teller, an opportunity to create something positive for the community. “I hope it gives them hope,” he says. “If they don’t have an outlet, there’s just this resentment mouldering inside them,” he says. “And the response we saw from the participants was incredible. I was surprised by it, in a really positive way.”
The journalist Charlie Porter, who guest-edited the issue, developed the project in collaboration with the activist Ash Kotak, and Amanda Fernandez, the founder of the community arts organisation FerArts. For Porter, it was important to restore a sense of agency to the Grenfell community. “This group have had such attention on them, and such language used about them”, he explains. “We didn’t want to think of them as victims, or survivors. We just wanted to give them a platform to be able to speak for themselves.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Rajaa Bouchab, an 18-year-old student and one of the participants in the project. “When the residents are ready to speak out, there should be a place for them to do it,” she says. Bouchab lives and works a short distance from the tower, where friends of hers were residents. Some lost their lives. “This is in memory of them,” she says. “I wanted to do something with that pain, and channel it into something positive.”
The brief given to the contributors was entirely open. The images aren’t captioned; they are titled only with the names of the photographers. But they are potent with a sense of frustration, displacement and loss. There are few images of the tower itself. Instead, the images document protest marches and memorials, alongside moments of reflection, grief, and optimism. One image, taken by the performance artist Shareefa Energy, shows pages of poetry written by her about the disaster. “They cannot steal my sanity, my safe haven,” it reads.
Teller and Porter are hopeful that the project will be able to continue: FerArts aims to mount a physical exhibition of the works in time for the one year anniversary of the fire in June. “It would be great if this can carry on for longer,” says Teller. “I would have loved to do this over the course of another six or nine months.” For Bouchab, the project has provided an opportunity to rewrite the narrative about her community. “The story we hold has so much power,” she says. “I wanted to channel what we’ve been feeling. And I wanted to say, this is what we can do.”
This article was amended on 19 February 2018 to correct the spelling of Amanda Fernandez, the founder of the community arts organisation FerArts.