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100 years, 100 stories: Jenny Lewis’ latest photobook on the Hackney community challenges prejudices

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JACK, 7 years old. ‘People are always stereotypical to me. Just because I’m a boy they say you can’t like pink, but I love pink. One of the first times I wore a skirt, my mum bought me a tutu. I looked in the mirror and I loved it. It makes me feel happy when I’m glamorous.’ © Jenny Lewis.

Beginning with a newborn and ending with a 100-year-old, Lewis captures a portrait of diversity and charm in the East London borough

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Jenny Lewis’ practice has long been informed by her interest in community, personal narratives and the east London borough of Hackney where she has lived for 25 years. One Hundred Years, published by the local publishing house, Hoxton Mini Press, is her latest photobook and a reflection of these long-standing sensitivities.

The project began in 2017 after a neighbour asked her to photograph their 105-year-old grandmother, Nellie. The interaction had a profound effect on Lewis, who was moved by the old lady’s quick wit, natural charm and feistiness.

Her preconceptions about how a 100-year-old would behave were shattered. And, she recognised an opportunity to dispel such assumptions about other members of her community.

CLOUD. 76 years old. ‘In the late 1980s, I was diagnosed HIV positive. I decided to start a theatre company comprised entirely of others with the condition. We became a great success. I witnessed the transformation of frightened individuals, some terrorised by public ignorance, into confident performers. It’s encouraged me to help others not give up hope.’ © Jenny Lewis.
HYACINTH. 88 years old. ‘I used to love dancing. I used to go to six dances in one night and then not get up till three on a Sunday. Then I reached an age where I say, this not for me. Take it easy.’ © Jenny Lewis.

“It sounds so cheesy but talking to someone and being allowed into their private space is like soul food. The kind of tea they offer you, the smells, the music – it’s just all so nourishing.”

Lewis wanted to create an accurate portrait of her neighbours, reflecting the many nationalities, ethnicities and ages that make up the diverse Hackney borough. She began with a newborn and, year by year, worked her way up to the grand age of 100. She documented her conversations with the subjects, who shared personal anecdotes and life stories while having their picture taken.

“It sounds so cheesy but talking to someone and being allowed into their private space is like soul food,” says Lewis. “The kind of tea they offer you, the smells, the music – it’s just all so nourishing.” These interactions form the basis for brief but intimate profiles of the people she encountered, which are woven with great love and care into the book. The images show them in their homes, gardens or local parks. These are then placed alongside snippets from their exchanges with Lewis. They are warming, melancholy, pensive and humorous, but always honest.

KING. 38 years old. 'I was arrested for doing a graffiti mission the day before my wedding – I made it out a few hours before the ceremony – but when my first child was born, that was it. I promised my wife I was done. There are four kids now looking up to me. It’s what I signed up for. They need me and I’m hungry for it. Can you imagine the amount of times I hear “Daddy” each day? This is my life and I love it.’ © Jenny Lewis.
ANKA. 42 years old. ‘I had anorexia, bulimia and everything in between. To me, it felt like an addiction, like being an alcoholic. It’s a distraction from life. I don’t see my traumas as doom and gloom, but as positive things – they’re my chapters, you know? My family is my close group of friends, and my partner. We’re solid: both very independent, free souls, but together. I call it “together alone” – and that’s where I’m most comfortable.’ © Jenny Lewis.

“I didn’t guide the conversations in any way,” recalls Lewis. “I just talked to them and whatever was preoccupying their thoughts at the time eventually bubbled to the surface. Often these were stories that I didn’t expect and stories that contradicted their appearance.”

These surprises recur throughout the book’s pages and frequently serve to challenge the reader’s assumptions about the figures in the photos. There is Jack, a seven-year-old boy whose thoughts on gender identity show him to be wise beyond his years. And, 71-year-old Jenny, who shares a home with housemates who are in their thirties, and wouldn’t have it any other way. “You can’t know someone’s story just by looking at them – you often get it so wrong,” says Lewis.

IRIS. 20 years old. ‘I’m living at home with my mum and my little brother and I love it. I absolutely love it, even though I’m getting to that age when I should move out. Mum is thinking of moving back to Brazil for good so I’m probably going to end up here alone, which is just way worse than me moving out as she’s going to be so far away. I wish I was younger to be honest, so I didn’t have to rush to move out and do certain things.’ © Jenny Lewis.
RENEE. 100 years old ‘I’ve got a past alright. I married a gangster, he thought he was Humphrey Bogart. I was 21 at the time, in too deep to get out. He went to prison for ten years the day after my son was born. My boyfriend now is 28 years younger than me. I became frail six or seven years ago and Terry said to me, “I will never leave you. I’ll always make sure you’re alright.” We’ve never lived together, but every night he rings and says I love you.’ © Jenny Lewis.

Despite the focus on Hackney, One Hundred Years has a universality that makes it as relevant to readers who live in the borough themselves, as it does to those who reside far away.

The subjects in the book have loved and lost just like the neighbours from each of our different communities.  They serve as a reminder that, given the opportunity, many of us are willing to share our stories. As Lewis’ friend and ongoing collaborator Lucy Davies writes in the book’s introduction: “I suppose we’re not often encouraged to talk about ourselves, to tell our own tale, so when that chance does come, it pours out. The stories near drench you.”

Jennylewis.net

One Hundred Years is published by Hoxton Mini Press and is part of its series ‘East London Photo Stories’

VIVI, 3 years old. ‘My favourite food is alien food. I like to be loud every day.’ © Jenny Lewis.
Daniel Milroy-Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.

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