Nearly seven years ago, Vancouver-born photographer Teresa Eng moved to Elephant and Castle, having grown to know the area during an MA in photography at London College of Communication. At the time, the area was mainly inhabited by people who had lived there with their families for decades and it was relatively affordable. It’s hard to imagine when looking at Elephant and Castle today, as the area has undergone rapid change, with 21 projects (costing over £4bn) either underway or in the pipeline, making it one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects ever.
Teresa’s work toes the line between documentary and fine art photography and her interests lie in the ever-shifting world. “I work on long term projects that deal with transition and change,” she tells It’s Nice That. Her move to Elephant and Castle, therefore, presented an opportunity: a long-term documentation of an area undergoing a huge transformation and the effect this has on the people who live there. The result is Elephant, a ten-year-long project currently in its sixth year.
The project first began as a stroll through the neighbourhood. Teresa explains: “As I saw the estates being sealed and demolished, I could see the impact that it would have on the fabric of the neighbourhood and the community. In the last few years, it’s changed enormously as council housing tenants are being rehoused elsewhere and replaced by people with large mortgages. Aylesbury, the estate near me, houses 10,000 residents and it’s phased for development until 2030.”
While the situation seems pretty dire, photography as a medium allows Teresa to attempt to unpack the situation, and find silver linings; “it’s about learning to see and finding beauty in detritus.” For her, photography is also an excuse to approach strangers and get to learn a bit about their lives. This is only furthered by her use of a medium format camera which significantly slows down the image-making process. “Sometimes I end up having deep conversations and learning about the history of the area with people I encounter,” she adds.
The images in Elephant, therefore, exhibit a familiarity and warmth, only possible through working within a community for such an extended period of time as Teresa has. In one image, a young man looks into the lens as he leans on his bike, at ease with the interaction taking place. In the background, his friend is distracted, barely even noticing the portrait being taken in front of him. It’s portraits like this, displayed in combination with sun-drenched images of local parks and buildings reminding you that there is already beauty in this place, already a community which calls it home.
On how the body of work will continue to develop, she tells us: “I see Elephant as a document of the changing nature of neighbourhoods and cities. My intention is to make this a ten-year-long project (I’m already on year six). I think there’s a value in long term documentary work. It’s a marker of time and of the changes that are imperceptible on a day-to-day basis.”
Elephant is currently on show at Somerset House until 8 September as part of the Kaleidoscope exhibition.
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