Hackney in the 80s: Recovering a forgotten archive of working-class life

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Discovered in the basement of the Rio cinema in 2016, an archive of 12,000 images made by an initiative for unemployed people provides a portrait of everyday life, shot from within the community


The Rio in Dalston is London’s oldest community-run cinema. It was established as a non-profit arts centre in 1979, and in the early-80s, the basement was transformed into a workshop and recording studio for community-led initiatives such as feminist film collective Women’s Media Resource Project, and the Tape/Slide Newsreel Group, a radical photography project for local unemployed people.

Set up in 1982, members were taught how to use a camera, and sent out to document Hackney’s vibrant communities, markets, festivals and social events. They reported on social issues, capturing the spirit of local activism in protests against racism, police brutality, AIDS, the miners’ strike and nuclear weapons. Their images were then collated into newsreels, and screened before the commercial ads, to audiences of around a 1,000 people a week.

In 1986, when the Greater London Council was abolished, along with its associated funding, the group began to disintegrate. The basement of the Rio became a storage space, and the Tape/Slide Newsreel Group’s 12,000 slides were buried beneath documents and filing cabinets.

“Pictures of working class life can be detached. This is an insider portrayal of what was going on at the time”

Max Leonard, publisher

Protests against the killing of Colin Roach, who died from a gunshot inside Stoke Newington police station on 12 January 1983. The jury returned a majority verdict of suicide, but the evidence was inconsistent.

Three years ago, the Rio began construction on a second screen in the basement, and during the clear-out, artist and historian Andrew Woodyatt, director of community activity at the Rio, discovered the slides. Realising their significance, he proceeded to digitise them with the help of local photographer Alan Denney, and in 2019 they began to publish them on Instagram. Now, in collaboration with photographer Tamara Stoll and publisher Isola Press, the team are crowdfunding to produce a photobook, which will include interviews with the group’s organisers and participants, as well as an introduction written by Michael Rosen, a British poet with a long history of activism in Hackney.

For Max Leonard, creative director of Isola Press and born-and-bred Hackney resident, the project is nostalgic, “but it’s a lot more than that too,” he says. “You see a lot of books showing East London before it was trendy, but these don’t give any space for the voices of people who were actually there. Pictures of working-class life can be detached. This is an insider portrayal of what was going on at the time.”

The early 80s were tumultuous years for the borough; Thatcherism was beginning to bite, and trade unions were being silenced. Around a third of the archive are photographs of local protests, including demonstrations against the killing of Colin Roach — a young black man who was shot inside Stoke Newington police station in 1983 — and in support of the miner’s strikes and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The archive also includes images of left-wing politicians like Neil Kinnock, Diane Abbot, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, and writer and historian C. L. R. James.

“There are lots of pictures from the protests, but that isn’t really the remarkable bit,” says Leonard. “The remarkable bit for me is seeing people playing cricket on the street, kids coming out of school, pensioners playing Bingo.”

Alan Denney, the photographer responsible for digitising the slides, agrees that what is most impressive is the scale with which it portrays everyday working-class life. Denney has been documenting the borough since he moved there in 1974, alongside working as a teacher and mental health social worker for 26 years. He did not know the Tape/Slide Group personally, but “I suppose I swam in the same sea as them,” he says. “In terms of photography in Hackney, there was a countercultural blossoming. People were trying to use photography as a tool to achieve some sort of social and political change.”

Although there were similar projects based in London, and across the UK, Denney is yet to encounter a project of this volume.”It’s quite unique really. This is a huge survey of working-class life, by a working-class community,” he says. “People wanted to change the world, and photography seemed like a way of telling stories that might encourage people to get on and do that.”

Donate towards the production of The Rio Cinema Archive book here. The Kickstarter will close on Sunday 09 July, and the book will be published in November. Pre-orders can be made here.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.