Last time we wrote about photographer Sam Gregg’s work, it was his series See Naples and Die which formed the basis of our conversation. At the time, he was living in the city, teaching English over the course of a year. Prior to this, Sam had spent three years in Bangkok, working for an international film company. Upon his return to the UK in early 2018, he realised that his time away, “coupled with the present, constant rhetoric about nationality”, meant he was experiencing a disassociation with being British. With this in mind, he began exploring his hometown of London in an attempt to reconnect to it the only way he knew how, with a camera around his neck.
“My solution beforehand would have been to pack-up shop and find the first plane out of there, but I knew I couldn’t keep doing that forever. I had to tackle this dissatisfaction head on and get to the root of the cause,” he tells us. “Up until 18 I’d had a rather sheltered existence at home, only to move to a university bubble (also in London). When I was finally out on my own two feet I hopped on a plane straight to Asia. This year I realised that my disassociation with London stemmed from the fact that I’d never gotten to know my home city.” Titled Blighty (a working title), Sam’s latest work is the result of his digging up his roots, and having “a good rummage around in the dirt”.
A series of beautiful portraits, at times Blighty feels like stepping into a time warp, a direct result of the subjects Sam chose to document. “Up until this point, the series has been shot in London, mostly in the East End, where most of the remnants of British culture from the turn of the 19th Century are still visible,” he explains, “the part of English culture that I’ve been focusing on is essentially the last tangible remnants of pre-war British culture.”
In turn, Blighty not allows Sam to spend time getting to know his own culture again, but it documents an important moment for London as a whole. With nostalgia-inducing images taken in pie and mash shops and pubs, his images are testament to the family-run businesses that are slowly but surely being driven out and replaced by big business, corporate London. “Many have disappeared already, and who knows for how much longer the rest will be around, so I believe that now’s the time to document this unfortunate changing of the guard,” Sam adds.
Ultimately, Sam’s series has proved to be a cathartic process for him. Where he was looking at Britain from afar before, photography has enabled him to make ties with it again, and delve deep into what it means to be British. On the question on what exactly that is, he concludes: “What it actually means ‘to be British’? God knows. That’s near impossible to define and I’m happy to leave it that way. All I know is that we’re a complicated bunch, but, if you peel back just a few layers, we’re just like everyone else, with an added dash of self-deprecation and sarcasm.”
With plans to turn the series into a larger panorama documenting the length of the country, keep your eyes peeled for more cinematic, intimate and explorative portraits.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.