‘A legacy of contribution’: photo series pays tribute to Windrush generation

A south London photographer has taken the portraits of members of the Windrush generation to highlight their courageous journeys, which transformed modern Britain.

The photo series, called Britain Called and We Answered, interviews and photographs “everyday” members of the Windrush generation who all have important stories to tell.

The project is part of the Windrush 75 Network, which will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the historic arrival of HMT Empire Windrush on UK shores. It was set up by leading organisations and black Britons, including the actor Sir Lenny Henry, MP David Lammy, historian David Olusoga and Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the bishop of Dover.

This year’s 75th anniversary is being described as a “diamond jubilee for modern, diverse Britain”.

Steve Reeves said the photo series had grown naturally and taken on a life of its own. “I basically just go out on the street, photograph and interview people. It’s a whole mixture of people that I photograph. Some of them come from a Caribbean background. I got to know a few of them and they introduced me to other people and it kind of just spiralled from there.”

Reeves partnered up with the charity Positive Network, which supports black and minority ethnic elderly individuals in south-west London. The resulting project is a series of portraits of more than a dozen people from the Windrush generation. Reeves said the project would not have been possible without Grace Salmon from Positive Network, who helped find many of the individuals he photographed.

As a child, Monica longed to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Photograph: Steve Reeves

“I’ve got quite obsessed in trying to capture these people’s stories because a lot of them are getting very old now,” Reeves said. “I’m quite keen to get as many of those stories as possible because they have just not been heard; stories about life, coming over to England to help out and to work. They are not really spoken about much. We hear about the people that have come over and become famous or done really well, but I love the stories of just normal, everyday people.”

He points to stories such as that of 77-year-old Monica, whose portraits he took at Trafalgar Square, where she sits on her favourite bench to play scratch cards. When she lived in St Lucia as a child, she told her teacher of her dream of meeting Queen Elizabeth II. Though the teacher had apparently laughed and said, ‘You never will’, Monica told Reeves that she did meet the late queen, as well as many British prime ministers as she worked in No 10 as a messenger.

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Audley talked about his experiences of racism in the UK. Photograph: Steve Reeves

He was also touched by the stories of 88-year-old Victor and Audley. Both spoke movingly about their struggles with racism in the job market when they arrived in the UK.

Some of the people he photographed have since died, including Gloria. 76. “Her granddaughter saw the picture on Instagram and said, ‘Oh, that’s my grandmother’. She wanted a big print for the funeral and the granddaughter said come down to my mum’s and drop off the print,” he said.

Reeves went to the house, but it was early and Gloria’s daughter answered the door. “She saw for the first time a picture of her mother, who had literally just passed away. And it was such an emotional … and beautiful moment because she was so pleased to have this nice picture of her mum.” Reeves added moments like that had driven him to continue the series.

Patrick Vernon, the convenor of the Windrush 75 network, said: “The Windrush generation overcame prejudice to build new lives in Britain for themselves and their families. Their legacy is one of contribution, struggle and positive change for our society.

“As we mark the 75th anniversary of Windrush this year, it’s important that the voices and faces of that Windrush generation are front and centre.”

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