“A love letter to Hackney”: Sarah Burton Fielding documents the character and community of London
After moving to the city in 2016, Sarah Burton Fielding got to know her new home of Hackney the only way she knew how – photographing it.
- Lucy Bourton
- 31 March 2021
When Sarah Burton Fielding and her husband Ryan first arrived in London from New Zealand, a taxi driver proudly gave them a guided tour from his front seat. As they trundled down the roads from Heathrow and drove past Harrods, Buckingham Palace and over Tower Bridge, “it felt like a grand entrance,” Sarah reflects now, five years on from when she first arrived in the city.
Settling in Hackney, the environment around Sarah is one she describes as a world away – quite literally when you consider the distance – from her home. “For someone from such a small and newly colonised country it is wild coming to a comparatively ancient city like London for the first time,” she tells It’s Nice That. “It’s a place that I’d read about, or seen in films and TV, my whole life.” And so Sarah took in the city the way she knew best as a photographer, setting out on walks to document her new neighbourhood.
In doing so Sarah’s created Walking Distance, a document of the warmth London can provide; its own distinct communities, dialects and individual characters, collected photographically over the past five years. “I loved London and especially Hackney, the borough I settled in, straight away,” she continues. “I love the multiculturalism, the friendly banter and weather chat, the overwhelming amount of offies and pubs, the Victorian architecture, the well-tended parks.” Walking Distance therefore features all of these attributes, but in a more abstract photographic style than just a straight-up documentary series. “It’s about emotion and memory,” as Sarah puts it. “I wanted it to be a kaleidoscope of people and place. A love letter to Hackney.”
Tying the series together thematically is Sarah’s use of capturing light as it sweeps over the city. It was a new quality of everyday life the photographer immediately noticed in Hackney, explaining how it has “a different quality of light than the other places I’ve lived, softer, more fleeting,” she says. “When it does come out it is so beautiful, because the buildings are all so close together it makes for more interesting slants and shadows.”
In turn Sarah purposefully headed out on days where the light was brightest, avoiding grey days in favour of “warm evenings and the spicy energy they evoke”. On her walks the photographer would look out for bold colour, or subjects and scenes that caught her breath, although usually just “commonplace things I could elevate by photographing them.”
Previous to this she had rarely shot much street photography, finding it a little nerve-racking to speak to strangers. Pushing herself to be more vulnerable, and moving forward from any no’s she received, “every time I did ask and had a lovely interaction with someone it gave me the biggest buzz – and I hate the feeling of regret when you miss an opportunity for a great portrait”. Some of Sarah’s favourites are the more portrait-led shots as a result, noting a photograph of Otis and his son sitting at his jerk chicken stand, Rainbow Cookout, as a particular favourite.
Considering how Sarah moved to London in 2016, a turning point in Britain against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum, it’s a testament to her photographic eye that Walking Distance portrays such a calming portrait of community aside these sociopolitical difficulties. As she describes: “Despite the turmoil of Britain, and the world, in the past five years, daily life and daily routines trundle on… When I started it was with a sense of privilege to travel freely and live like a local in a different country, and it ended with most travel completely off the cards and literally not being able to do anything but walk these same streets,” she adds, referencing the current lockdown restrictions due to the pandemic.
An ever-growing document of Sarah and her family’s life in their newfound home, the photographer hopes most of all “they represent a great fondness for my current home,” she concludes. “One day, I will return to New Zealand and this will be a visual diary – rose tinted, maybe – but I’m fine with that. Kiwi friends who abruptly left London due to the pandemic tell me that the images make them homesick for their London life.” Walking Distance has this same nostalgic quality for Londoners still in the city, still itching to get back amongst the vibrancy as we edge ever closer to the end of lockdown and embracing the streets as Sarah has done.
GallerySarah Burton Fielding: Walking Distance (Copyright © Sarah Burton Fielding, 2021)
Sarah Burton Fielding: Walking Distance (Copyright © Sarah Burton Fielding, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.