Grey Hutton documents the growing network of support found across Hackney

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“I began to see this huge web of support that was unfolding”

Over the last year, Covid-19 has hit communities hard. “In Hackney, we were disproportionately hit,” explains Grey Hutton, a resident of the east London borough.“In the first three or four months, we had the third highest mortality rate in the country. I think there are underlying issues in Hackney that were exacerbated because of the pandemic.” Unsatisfactory housing, food shortages, and a lack of financial security were all issues present long before Covid-19 hit, but the pandemic has pushed these problems even further. There are an estimated 246,300 residents in Hackney, 36 percent of them living in poverty. 

Returning to the borough after seven years of living in Berlin, Hutton arrived before the pandemic. “When [Covid-19] hit I lost a lot of my work,” he says. Despite this, Hutton decided to work on a new project: “I wanted to do something different to the constant stream of images [I was seeing] of empty supermarket shelves.” The photographer became interested in the mutual aid groups supporting people in need, and began making work following the volunteers.

Overlooking Springfield Park families gather on their balconies for prayer and to watch the sunset. Halakha (Jewish law) suggests that prayer should take place with at least 10 people, so with the synagogues closed, some neighbours have taken to praying alongside each other outside their homes. © Grey Hutton.

The Ties That Bind grew out of his initial portrait series. From this, the project developed beyond these organisations and into the wider communities they were helping. “A lot of these workers were just regular people before the pandemic. Yoga instructors would open up a studio and use it as a food bank, an elderly lady would cycle around the borough, distributing seeds. I began to see this huge web of support that was unfolding.”

Hutton was able to create the work thanks to the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists, an initiative set up to support journalists worldwide covering the pandemic within their communities. He has also been working closely with the local Hackney Gazette, publishing five articles in print and online — each one focusing on a specific organisation within the borough. The Ties that Bind was selected for the National Portrait Gallery’s Hold Still exhibition, as well as an image from the series being used in the Queen’s speech.

Volunteers Ziggy Noonan, Carletta Gorden, and Michelle Dornelly sing along to Whitney Houston as they pack bags with food at the Community Food Hub in the Wilton Estate Community Centre, 6th April, 2020. © Grey Hutton.

The project grew naturally, with each volunteer Hutton met connecting him to another local organisation. Through this interweaving web of mutual aid, Hutton created a networked collection of stories, each feeding into one another through their social and geographical ties. “I went to the mosque once to interview and photograph one of the leading figures, and he told me about a lady that he knew who was running an organisation where she cooked over 100 free meals every week, all from her kitchen,” he says. “She was also giving language lessons for some of the East African communities. From her, I met another family who was struggling because the mothers’ English wasn’t very strong, but her children were all being homeschooled. She was struggling because she didn’t know how her children were getting on with their schoolwork.” The links, stories, struggles and successes of Hackney residents all come together in the work; the connections between families and individuals seemingly endless.

The prayer hall of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Hackney lies empty, 4th July, 2020. Places of worship reopened across the UK on the 15th June under new social distancing guidelines, however many have chosen to remain closed to their congregations in order to better prepare for safer worship. © Grey Hutton.

“I feel like a part of the community. I’ve created friendships, and I’m in touch with nearly everyone I shot in the series – I even volunteer with one of the organisations now,” continues Hutton. The photographer has plans to bring the project to the streets of Hackney, so that his neighbours can celebrate the work and share the experience.. “Thousands of volunteers are there for the people of Hackney each week. They do it in their own time, often at their own expense, all to support the community – It’s an incredible thing,” he says.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.