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J'can photographer takes Londoners down memory lane at Elephant and Castle

BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor — Special Assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, July 26, 2012    

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LONDON, England — Jamaicans living in the United Kingdom (UK), many of whom have not been back in years, were taken on a journey down memory lane through a photo exhibition now mounted at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre here in South London.

The images, captured by renowned Jamaican-born photographer Neil Kenlock and date back to the 1960s, depict various social issues faced Jamaicans living here and on the island, and were mounted alongside more recent images captured by high school students from rural Jamaica who were participants in the Jamaica National Foundation Resolution Project.

Kenlock said he was inspired to do the exhibition as a part of his contribution to Jamaica 50th anniversary.

However, it was quite a task selecting from his collection of more than 30,000 pictures. He finally settled on a 100, from which 45 were selected for the exhibition.

Many of the pieces on display depicted what life was like for Jamaican communities here in the UK and the struggles they endured to raise their children while helping families back home.

"This is what some Jamaicans went through to get recognition from Britain," Kenlock told the Jamaica Observer, adding that many Jamaicans now do not know of these struggles.

Kenlock, who migrated to the UK in 1963, at age 12, honed his photographic skills through apprenticeship, as there was no formal training available in photography at that time.

He later became the official photographer for the Black Panthers between 1960 and 1972, during which he captured many images depicting struggles faced by blacks, for whose rights the Black Panthers fought.

"At that time there was no protection for blacks as there were no anti-discrimination laws and it was totally about repatriation of blacks," Kenlock recalled.

He is also credited for having started the first black lifestyle Roots Magazine that was published from 1979 to 1989 and which helped to keep blacks informed.

Meanwhile, his three favourite pieces on display are a portrait of his grandmother 'Mama Bella', which was taken on his first return trip to Jamaica in the 70s; a picture of Peter Tosh, depicting the frustration the singer felt at not making a decent living from his music; and a portrait of a Jamaican girl standing in a living room near a paraffin heater.

"For the Peter Tosh picture, taken in 1973 on Duke Street in downtown Kingston, it is a mystical image because it was as if we were not there to him as he spoke about how he was driving around in a 'beat-up' Volkswagon while his music was being sold all around the world," Kenlock told the Observer.

As for the picture of the little girl, it was one of those where a family would ask me to take a portrait of their child to send back home to show how they were doing, and here the child was standing by a paraffin heater, which was the only source of heat in those days," he said.

Diane Abbott, the first black woman ever elected to the British Parliament, and who is also of Jamaican heritage, described the photos are a wonderful documentation of nearly half a century of Jamaican presence in the United Kingdom.

"This is very unique and special exhibition and is happening at a time when Jamaicans are coming together," she told the Observer shortly after the official opening of the exhibition on Tuesday . "This is a very exciting climax with our athletes expected to win all these gold medals," she added.

Jamaican Barbara Gray, who resides in Lewishan in South East London and who was featured in one of the photographs, was pleased with the exhibition.

"It is great to see the photos on display in Britain as it reminds me of the heritage of where I am from," she said, adding that it is also great to see the connection to present day Jamaica as depicted through the eyes of the young Jamaican photographers

Alicia Glasgow, arts and media specialists of the Jamaica National Building Society Foundation, said the response to the exhibition has been overwhelming since it opened on July 15. Among the first set of visitors, she said, were 35 students from a London-based primary school, among whom were four children of Jamaican heritage.

"People have been so thrilled by the work... one lady who had not been back to Jamaica since age eight cried because it brought back memories," she said.

Ninety-odd year-old Louise Smith, who migrated to London in 1961 — a year before Jamaica gained Independence from Britain — said not only are the pictures well done, but that they brought back "personal" memories.

"It makes me remember the days when I used to carry basket with food and bucket of water on mi head and when mi used to peel sugar cane with mi teeth," she told the Observer.

Vannessa Hutchinson, a lawyer and investment banker, said the work on display was "beautifully un-offensive and politically" correct.

"We could have chosen to display pictures which would have made people cry, especially in light of the recent (London) riot, but instead what we have on display are all reflective of a people in celebration," she said.

Kenlock, in the meantime, is hoping that his pictures — some of which are already in the Museum of London — will make it to Institute of Jamaica.

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