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SANFORD (an ongoing project)

See images here.

The Sanford Housing Co-Operative in the south London borough of Lewisham is Britain’s oldest purpose-built housing co-op. Founded in the early 1970s by a group of student enthusiasts from the nearby Goldsmith’s College who were concerned by a shortage of single-occupancy accommodation in the capital, it was considered novel enough at the time to be opened by Prince Phillip and continues to go from strength to strength. It is situated between train tracks where the East London Line splits into two branches towards New Cross and New Cross Gate in an inner city area suffering from social issues, visual blight, and numerous kinds of pollution, not least from the nearby Selchip incineration plant.

The underlying principle behind Sanford is that as a co-op all tenants, as members, are defacto landlords with responsibility for carrying out the landlord’s functions. Tenants are therefore expected to work for the co-op partaking in its maintenance and development whilst adhering to its founding principles. There are 14 houses each shared by between 8 and 10 people on a single occupancy basis – couples and children are not allowed. Everyone has their own small identical room measuring about 5 metres square and shared communal facilities of kitchen, shower, bathroom, etc. In total there are about 130 tenants spread across houses that look similar from the outside but which are in fact very different due to the people living within them. The co-op is popular with writers, film makers, students, artists, dancers, musicians, etc. who are attracted by the central London location, creative environment, and the cheap rent of about £50 per week which includes council tax, heating, electricity, and broadband internet.

As described in the above linked Guardian article, the co-op also has a prescribed set of ecological aims, with the ambition of reducing its carbon footprint to the absolute minimum possible. They have already replaced their gas boilers with high efficiency wood pellet boilers, have introduced solar hot water arrays, and recycle much of the food waste for use on their allotment – all as part of their ongoing C60 programme. It has been calculated that since 2003 they have already reduced their CO2 emissions by about 60%.

I first became aware of Sanford through stills photography I did for a production company called Undercurrents, who made a documentary about the place as part of an ongoing video series on eco villages called Living the Future. Through this work, I photographed a few of the residents who were an interesting mixture of professions and nationalities, many of whom seemed full of hope and on upward trajectories in life.

And so the idea for a portrait project was born, where I would study the individuals in terms of their physical appearance but also attempt to provide insight to their inner world by photographing them in the one place they are able to retreat to that is not communal – the personal space of their rooms. The paraphernalia we surround ourselves with (or not as the case may be) can often reveal as much about who we are, what we aspire to be, and how we see the world than how we actually present ourselves to other people. This is perhaps even more pronounced at Sanford where many of the residents have interesting histories spread across time and space and carry with them objects from both their current and past lives all of which has to be squeezed into the tiny area they call their own.

I’ve been visiting Sanford on and off for the past few months, making contacts, getting to know the residents, hearing their stories.  I present here the fruit of those efforts in a series of portraits of a diverse group of people from Brazil, Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey all of whom, it is safe to say, have great aspirations for the future.

I’ve resisted the expectation to post formal details about any of the subjects in terms of their names, ages, nationalities, professions, etc. as I want to avoid pre-influencing the spectator in the formulation of ideas around what they see. The guessing game forms part of both the enjoyment and intellectual challenge of the work (i.e. the ‘experience’), stimulating the viewer to look deeper for clues and insights and overall provoking you, the audience, to maybe think a bit more than if captions were provided.

See images here.