“Empowering people to represent themselves”: exploring the rich and relevant Rio Cinema Archive

The results of a community-led photography project between 1983-1998, the Rio Cinema Archive is currently in funding for a book release.

11 June 2020


Between the years of 1983–1988 down in the basement of a beloved cinema in Hackney, lived The Rio Cinema Tape / Slide Newsreel Group. A project which utilised funding to buy cameras and recording equipment, the group taught unemployed, local young people in Hackney how to document daily life – at the time demonstrating the impact of Thatcherism on housing, unemployment, and even pensioners fighting against dangerous pavements.

The resulting photos now feel like rare artefacts of a time which looks strangely familiar, for us Londoners in its location, but of course current events too. Protestors hold signs shouting “Hands off our NHS”. Police brutality leads people to the streets following the killing of Colin Roach, found dead outside Stoke Newington police station in 1983 following months of the Hackney Black People’s Association calling for inquiries. The photographs themselves are literal artefacts too. The 12,000 slides holding them weren’t discovered until 30 years after they were originally taken, when the Rio was fitting a new cinema screen in 2016.

Since then the photographs found a home on Instagram, @theriocinemaarchive, but are now in the process of being published in a book via a Kickstarter (it’s already achieved its target). Once the campaign is complete, the book will soon be published by Isola press, where writer and editor Max Leonard, alongside the team at the Rio and Alan Denney, a photographer and local historian who scanned the whole archive, have been piecing the book together.

Originally finding the photos himself while working with artist Tamara Stoll – who published an equally brilliant book on Ridley Road Market – coupled with finding the Instagram, Max admits he soon fell down a rabbit hole. “I love the images partly because they remind me of my childhood – I grew up in the area in the 80s and went to the Rio as a kid – and it now looks like a lost world,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Aside from that, I immediately thought they were important, as an example of the kind of radical community photography that was being theorised in left-wing photography circles back then – giving the camera to people from marginalised areas or groups and empowering them to represent themselves.”


© Rio Cinema Archive

Those who view the photographs tend to have a varied mix of reactions, a response that stems from a rare quality in the photographs which makes them unbelievably arresting. “From the responses on the Instagram you see lots of people who are into the nostalgia – ‘My dad had a car like that’, ‘Look at the Woolies on the high street’, that kind of thing,” says Max. “I love that aspect too! But, there’s also something about these being amateur pictures, people taking photos of people who are like them,” he continues. “There’s no detachment or power imbalance: you’re inside something, a participant and not just an observer.”

Aside from this effect of the approach with which the photographs were taken, and who they were taken by, an aspect of the photographs is their honest ability in being “pictures of opposition and resistance,” points out Max. “Many people in the area felt ignored, or, worse, shat on by Thatcher and what she was doing to Britain in the 1980s. There were huge numbers of derelict houses in Hackney, Stoke Newington Police Station was notorious: there are many pictures in the archive of the protests over the death of Colin Roach, a 21-year-old black man who died inside the police station from a shotgun wound to the back of the head – the police called it ‘suicide’. There were Anti-Apartheid, CND, and Stop the City demos, protests over NHS cuts and solidarity with Welsh miners.”

And still, in being an archive which “tells the story of so many fights” there is hope in the body of work as a whole. At its core, The Rio Cinema Tape / Slide Newsreel Group was a community-led initiative involving those from the community too. It’s a palpable quality, but the photographs also display “a sense of life, of vibrancy, of festivals and communities coming together – people having to endure but also being determined to live their life and enjoy themselves,” concludes Max. “Maybe we’re missing that now, thirty years after Thatcher left, in austerity Britain, and, in particular, in all our separate lockdowns?”

There are several ways you can support the archive, the book coming to fruition and the Rio itself too. Far from just another coffee table book on East London, the finished publication will also feature interviews with participants to compile an oral history “to put it in its social, cultural and political context”. A proportion of the profits from the book will go directly back to the Rio, which has been community-run since 1979 and “like so many places, facing a crisis due to Covid-19”. Another proportion will go to new community archiving and youth workshops too. There are also new opportunities to hopefully see the photographs once we’re out in the world again. An exhibition, initially planned for May, will take place at the Hackney Museum, as well as the physical slides and the interviews being available to view in Dalston Library’s Hackney Archives. Most importantly, you can support the Kickstarter directly here.

GalleryAll photographs © Rio Cinema Archive

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© Rio Cinema Archive

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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