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Through other people's eyes

About the author
Elly Clarke was born in 1976, and has a BA in History of Art. She has worked in London and New York in art, design, dotcoms, and the odd juice bar… She studied curating at the Royal College of Art, and is currently completing her MA at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design.

I have lived in Broadway House in Hackney, East London, for two years. Last October, I asked my neighbours to take three photographs: two views from their windows, one interior shot. This exhibition - part of ‘The Broadway House Photo Project’ - is the result.

Why?

I was motivated partly by curiosity: physically, what would the world look like from my neighbours’ perspectives? And ‘poetically’, how would they interpret the instructions? I was also motivated by a desire, if possible, to build relationships between the people who lived in the block of flats. Like most city dwellers, I knew few of my neighbours.

Stephen Willats has been doing similar ‘interventions’ in housing blocks across the world since the late 1950’s. In his 1985 project ‘Brentford Towers’, he interviewed residents, photographing views from their windows and certain objects inside their flats that they felt were important. Unlike me, however, he took the photographs himself.

This difference is important. (Perhaps it is partly revealing of the difference in gender? The man entering people’s homes; the woman, non-invasive, handing over the camera at the doorway…). Also, I live in my ‘subject’ – the block where the photographs were taken. My wish to create relationships between the residents, myself included, was central to the project. After the exhibition, all photographs will be returned to the residents who took them. Should people wish to buy prints, profits go to the Tenants & Residents Association. Art can be transformed into necessary repairs.

The project took six months. Thirty-six photographs were produced. I did not know what to expect. But while the camera was circulating, I became aware just how much trust, faith and hope underpinned the project: at one point, the camera went missing; I was grief-stricken for the loss of the photographs, and for the entire journey up until then. It made me more conscious than ever how little I knew about the lives of my neighbours. (In fact, the camera had gone missing for a perfectly innocent reason: a resident had gone on holiday, forgotten to mention that she still had it.)

But the episode reminded me that people are not a medium – they are people, and unpredictable; they have things going on in their lives that no-one can ever know about, and sometimes never should. Everyone’s experience is different, everyone’s eye his or her own. It was a privilege to be allowed to share these ‘private views’. I hope that it is an encouragement to people around the world, living in blocks like this, to do something similar. If so, please contact me via the Arts and Cultures Editor at openDemocracy.

The complete ‘Broadway House Photo Project’ is at Gallery Seven Seven, 77 Broadway Market, Hackney, London E8, Wednesday-Sunday, 12-6pm, until 16 March 2003. The project was made possible with the support and co-operation of the Broadway House Tenants & Residents Association and a grant from the Hackney Community Empowerment Fund.

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