Last month marked four years since the Grenfell Tower fire. To coincide with Portrait of Britain, photographer Tom Cockram reflects on Never Forget Grenfell: a portraiture project conceived to ensure “no one forgets” the lessons taught by a painful part of London’s history
Portrait of Britain is an award capturing the many faces of modern Britain, culminating in the nation’s biggest annual photography exhibition. Enter now.
Tom Cockram remembers how he felt on 14 June 2017, the day of the Grenfell Tower fire. “I was in north-east London,” he says, “and felt a bit helpless. When you drove past it in the weeks after, it was shocking to see this building where so many people had lost their lives.”
Some time later, Cockram was approached by Grenfell United – a group of former residents campaigning for justice and safe homes – to direct a film memorialising the disaster. In the words of those in the film: “We are not asking for money. We are not asking for sympathy. We are demanding change. Change, so that families up and down the country are safe in their homes. Change, so that people no matter where they live are treated with dignity and respect.”
“I thought, here’s one way I can help the community,” Cockram recalls of his eagerness to join the project. Determined to do as much as he could, he photographed members of the community between takes. Never Forget Grenfell (2019), a series of sensitive portraits of the campaigning residents, was born — and holds gazes that, to this day, are hard to forget.
Cockram has worked across various genres, including sport photography and advertising commissions. Portraiture is a cornerstone of his practice. It began after, lost on a study trip to New York, he started taking pictures of strangers on the street. “I could go up to anyone and ask for a portrait,” he explains, “and that seemed to work for me. And I think that’s always stuck in my work. It’s always been about people and their stories.”
The photographs in Never Forget Grenfell abound with respect for their subjects. “I was humbled to meet and be in the presence of people who had been through so much,” Cockram says, “And you could really see that in how they carried themselves.” Each looks forthright towards the camera, proud and determined. One piece features an elderly woman clasping her hands before her chest in a gesture of strength. Another shows an entire family standing together in their finest attire. Cockram shot them in black and white, recalling influences that include Irving Penn and early Annie Leibowitz.
Never Forget Grenfell was exhibited at the Truman Brewery in Shoreditch in June 2019, two years after the fire. It was a formidable effort. Cockram rented the venue himself and produced large-format prints to magnify the images. “I didn’t want these images to be online,” he says, “it had to be more than that.” Cockram reached out to the celebrated graphic designer Anthony Burrill – who he had never met before – who created striking posters using the photographs, with ‘Never Forget’ emblazoned in bold type. The billboard company JACK gave the campaign free spaces across London.
Since the exhibition, Cockram has continued to be involved with the community. “I met a girl,” he says, “who lost some family members and friends. She’s an up-and-coming photographer called Feruza Afewerki, and I’ve been mentoring her” (Afewerki’s book Gold and Ashes, which features members of the Grenfell community in their homes, is released this month). The exhibited photographs were given to Grenfell United, who may display them in a future memorial to the victims of the disaster. Prints have also been given to each subject. “The film,” explains Cockram, “was about awareness. And that’s a big part of the photographs too. It was an awareness project, to make sure that no-one forgets this tragedy.”
Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.