Emmanuel Cole captures the festivity, mundanity and characters of London

The photographer lets his intuitive approach to street photography lay bare in his new book Bearing Witness.

22 August 2023

Documenting the scope of any city is always going to be a difficult feat. Who are the faces of it and what place most reflects its energy? Emmanuel Cole first started documenting London in 2010 after a chance encounter – one of the joys of living in a city – with a man on a bus, who soon began showing him his photographs. “I got off the bus and couldn’t stop thinking about photography. Not long after I asked my family for a camera and started taking pictures of myself,” he adds. Some 13 years later, Emmanuel now portrays all that London is, from youth culture to eccentric characters on the street, with his endearing, fresh and energetic perspective that he brings together in his new book, Bearing Witness.

Born and raised in the city, Emmanuel has spent most of his time north of the river, living in Hackney, Chingford and Tottenham before moving to South London. His visual approach includes flicking through street photographs that inspire him and deciding where he plans to shoot the night before. “Once I’m on the streets, I warm up by taking pictures of anything that grabs my attention. It could be a texture, an empty street scene or just something mundane. I may even stop someone who looks nice and ask for a portrait. Having these sort of interactions really builds confidence and enables me to be prepared for more difficult street shots or candids,” he tells us. As he is a lover of walking, Emmanuel takes advantage of that unpredictability that makes cities across the world so lovable. “You never know what’s around each corner or what you’ll see through a shop window and that's exciting. With street photography, a hyper attentiveness is needed to achieve some of the shots that I’ve taken in the past and getting to that zone is something I really enjoy.”


Emmanuel Cole: Bearing Witness (Copyright © Emmanuel Cole, 2023)

Many street photographers spend their careers trying to strike the perfect balance between capturing the candid and being close enough to get a clear intentional perspective. “The photographers that inspired me at the beginning of my journey had a way of blending in and being invisible, and following that has worked for me,” Emmanuel tells us. In a photograph that he took at Notting Hill Carnival last year, five young women stand by a wall, with the majority of them talking and looking at their phones. One subject is particularly striking, though, because while Emmanuel is snapping her, she’s taking a selfie on her phone and looks over toward his lens as if she is catching him out. “Before this photo I had a dry period for an hour. I was exhausted and decided to make my way home before I noticed the low light coming through and saw them. I was lucky that the girl made eye contact with me. It’s moments like this that make a shot.”

With hopes that the book will expose people to a side of London that is rarely ever showcased, it is clear that Emmanuel has a love for the city and its people. But what’s even more powerful is his intuitive approach to it all. On a day shooting near Kingsland Road in Hackney, Emmanuel was drawn to a man with face tattoos and began documenting him. It wasn’t long before the man’s friend came over, lifting up his jumper and asking Emmanuel to take a photo of the raised scar on his torso. After a conversation and a few shots, it was over, and Emmanuel vowed to himself that he’d never share it. First he thought it didn’t fit in with his brand, and then he worried that sharing it may be perceived as glamorising knife crime. But one day, he realised that his audience deserved to bear witness to his rawest and most personal photograph. “Being the small world that Instagram is, someone recognised the scar and tagged him. He responded and told me I’d posted the shot on his birthday and it reminded him of how lucky he was to be alive.”

Bearing Witness is available to purchase here.

GalleryEmmanuel Cole: Bearing Witness (Copyright © Emmanuel Cole, 2023)

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Emmanuel Cole: Bearing Witness (Copyright © Emmanuel Cole, 2023)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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