Transforming Dalston’s Gillett Square car park into a hive of culture and business was to be a model of regeneration over gentrification. But almost ten years on, photographer Roland Ramanan’s stark images depict a vulnerable community that feels marginalised despite the changes.
Back in 1998, Hackney Council’s Regeneration Committee confirmed the location would become Dalston’s town square. With planning permission fully approved seven years later, the spot quickly evolved into the cluster of studios, shops and venues it is today.
But in a short film comprising a series of earthy black and white photos, Ramanan’s Gillett Square delves into a world of substance abuse, while touching sensitively on friendship.
Combined with compelling testimony and a moody dose of homemade jazz, the piece conveys an often touching, always shocking illustration of the lives of some who frequent the centre.
“Many of them are chronic alcoholics but that is just a small part of who they are,” Ramanan says. “They all feel marginalised in one way or another. They sit under a sign that tells them no public drinking is allowed, while customers sit outside the Vortex with beer and wine.”
As a regular at the Vortex Jazz Club – said to have played a significant role in the square’s redevelopment – Ramanan has long been familiar with the area.
“There has always been a collection of people who hang out there and I couldn’t help noticing that many of them were heavy drinkers. I have to admit to giving them a distinctly wide berth before I started this work.”
Keen to produce a documentary project about somewhere he knew, the photographer has since invested two years in Gillett Square and feels committed to the relationships he has formed.
Though careful not to attribute blame for the harsh conditions faced by the individuals, Ramanan’s work illustrates the glaring irony of a space that promised such benefits for all local residents.
If you pop Gillett Square into Google, amongst the catalogue of upcoming cultural events is a peppering of local news stories reporting crime and anti-social behaviour.
“They play a daily game of cat and mouse with the police and community officers who ask them to pour their beer away or face a fine,” Ramanan says.
Despite encountering tragic stories of violence and suicide, he takes heart from the support his subjects offer one another.
“What is remarkable is that the regulars there have a very deep attachment to that spot. It is their social support hub. The sense of mutual support and looking out for each other cannot be over emphasised.”
Evocative of Eugene Richards’ seminal work Cocaine True Cocaine Blue, Gillett Square provides a frank, heartfelt and disturbingly beautiful look at life on the fringes of Hackney. With the promise of more photos to follow and hopes of a book on the horizon, the future is bright for this exciting artist.
“The goal is always to take better photographs,” he says.
Watch Gillett Square here.