14 June 2017 is a date that will go down in British history. A huge fire engulfed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, going on to claim the lives of 72 residents. It was the biggest residential fire since the Second World War, and sparked outrage, protest, and debate around building regulations, fire safety and a widening economic sense of inequality in the capital.
Fundamentally, Grenfell was a human tragedy. For the past year photographer Tom Cockram has been working with both survivors and bereaved family members who lost loved ones in the fire.
The result is Never Forget Grenfell, an exhibition opening at London’s Truman Brewery on 20 June, running through to 23 June. It is a follow-up to a powerful video Tom released last year featuring contributions from both survivors and high profile supporters of the Grenfell United group, including Stormzy, Akala, and Adele.
“I was out of London that day and felt very helpless,” Tom says when It’s Nice That asks what he was doing when he first caught wind of the news that the fire had broken out. “It made me scared for people living in similar housing blocks, but I didn’t know what I could do. It was such a tragedy, and I remember seeing the smoke still going visible right across the city when I was back in London.”
Following on from the video, the photographer wanted to stay involved in the lives and struggles of the survivors. “On the day I wanted to get as much out of it as possible to extend the reach with what we could do, after every take I was jumping in capturing these portraits of the amazing people who make up this community,” Tom tells us.
It is those off-the-cuff portraits which make up the bulk of the exhibition, and Tom arranged a follow-up shoot that brought in additional members of the community to create a fully fleshed-out visual call for change.
Change, in this context, means calling on councils and the government to work together “to introduce a new separate housing regulator to put residents concerns over profits of housing associations,” in the light that even post-Grenfell there are, as Tom puts it, “hundreds of unsafe buildings across the country,” which could lead to further tragedy down the line.
Tom’s had a little help with the exhibition from beloved graphic designer, Anthony Burrill, who has worked on the posters advertising the show. Despite being a fan of Burrill’s, the pair had never talked, but the designer was keen to hop on board when Tom reached out and asked for his services.
“I didn’t want the posters to feel too modern or designed, and Anthony came back with the first layouts, and I was blown away,” says Tom. “It took the portraits to a different place making them more powerful and eye-catching to spread the important message – Never Forget Grenfell.”
Aware that not everyone has the luxury of being able to attend London gallery shows, Tom tells us that anyone wanting to ensure that the Grenfell remains as urgent an issue as it deserves to be can help out in few practical ways: “Share the film, share the message, write to local MP’s, follow Grenfell United, join silent march on the 14th of every month, speak out about housing injustice, go to the website. We need to keep Grenfell in the discussions in parliament and keep fighting to get change for other homes."
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