Inside Hackney: Stephen Gill

Stephen Gill is a photographer for whom Hackney has been an inspiration and an obsession for twenty years. Here he discusses three of his series: Hackney Flowers (2003–2007; pictured), A Series of Disappointments (2008) and Best Before End (2012–2013). Under his imprint Nobody, Stephen has published all three projects in the form of beautiful clothbound books, the most recent with a commentary by Will Self.

‘Hackney Flowers was an in-depth photographic study of Hackney Wick, an
attempt to use photography not just as a descriptive tool, but as a way of recording the essence and feeling of the place. I had been obsessively collecting seeds and flowers from the area and pressing them. I took photos of Hackney Wick with a cheap plastic camera, and laid the seeds and petals on the prints, rephotographing them with a high-quality medical camera. It created a confusion of scale and photographic quality. I felt I had begun to undermine and question my ideas about the medium.

A Series of Disappointments was born of necessity. I felt very strongly about the ever-growing number of betting shops in Hackney. Through a loophole in the law they are classed as ‘financial services’ – they are allowed to open unchecked. It’s tragic. I didn’t want to photograph people betting because it is a sensitive and private activity. I was looking for a way to articulate my feelings about the subject, and one evening I looked through a betting-shop window and saw a littering of crumpled betting slips. They seemed to carry human emotions within them; I began to collect them.

I approached each slip as a portrait of the person who had held it – I photographed them at night, with no added luminosity, to give them a strong, uniform feel. Afterwards I carefully unravelled each one – each felt like a little autopsy. The information on each slip – the name of the bet and the amount of money spent – provided the title for each image.

The series Best Before End is an attempt to reflect and respond to the intensity of inner-city life by focusing on the phenomenal rise of energy drinks. These powerful and potentially dangerous stimulants are being sold and consumed in ever-increasing quantities as the demands of modern life and the growth of a 24-hour society almost forbid us to become tired.

With Best Before End I decided to give the subject of the series a direct physical presence in the images. The colour negative films were part-processed and soaked in energy drinks, which caused image shifts and disruptions and softened the film emulsion. This softening allowed for manual stretching, moving, tearing and distortion of the layers of film emulsion to take place, and further manual shifts were added with a soft brush while the emulsion was still pliable. All the drinks were sourced in east London, which is also where the images were made.’