It’s very difficult to provide a full, vivid description of a place or person, let alone a community. That is especially true if you are trying to do it at a distance. Of course, this happens all the time, especially in a place as vast as a country. Our perceptions of people and places can be distorted by any number of things.
According to photographer Craig Easton and social researcher and writer Abdul Aziz Hafiz, this is precisely what has happened all too often in depictions of the Bank Top neighborhood situated in the northwest England town of Blackburn.
As Hafiz says in an afterword to Easton’s new book, “Bank Top” (Gost Books, 2022):
“The way that northern towns , neighbourhoods and people are presented in the media and absorbed by the popular imagination is full of homogenising signifiers of red brick terraces, women wearing headscarves and tough ‘blokes.’ These mythologies are toxic fairy-tales ignoring the true stories of the complex social and ethnic textures of places like Bank Top, of lifelong friendships, marriages and bonds between people of contrasting backgrounds and multiple ethnicities and identities. Who does this oversimplification by the media serve? Why is the diversity brought about by complicated journeys taken to arrive here ignored? Is this a story about the observer rather than those being observed?”
It’s not hard to fall short in a place and people’s description. In fact, it happens all the time and contributes to all kinds of misunderstandings.
To give a very broad example, here in the United States there’s always been a divide between Northern and Southern states. Stereotypes develop of both — the Yankee accents; the slow drawl of the South; the brash character of inhabitants of the North contrasting with the genteel nature of people from the South.
Is it any surprise the rest of the world is plagued with the same shortcomings? Not really.
Those are some of the more anodyne examples. They can, and do, get more caustic and veer into suppositions of things like people’s intelligence levels or perceived tolerance or intolerance of race or faith. To be sure, we sometimes use our distorted perceptions of others to fuel not just dislike, but even inequality. That’s been happening since the beginning of time.
This all seems to be baked into our very nature as people. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps this comes as a result of something as simple as bad programming and that it isn’t necessarily inevitable. Whatever the cause, I think we can all understand that “difference” is often seen as threatening, dangerous, or downright uncomfortable.
Bank Top has been described in some news reports as being one of the most segregated places in England. And along with that, some negative perceptions of the area have flourished.
Easton spent 2019 and 2020 lugging a large-format camera around Bank Top, spending long hours with the neighborhood’s residents. Because of this, he got to know them and he was able to pierce through some of the stereotypes that have been used to describe this community.
Easton instinctively believed that ideas about Bank Top might not be entirely accurate. In the time he spent mingling with its people, he found a place rich in diversity and lived experience.
Our perceptions often change the more we spend time interacting with people. Not always, but enough times to make us think twice about labeling people or places a specific way.
Easton’s portraits of the people and places of Bank Top reveal a nuanced portrait of a community of multidimensional people. From the pastor who takes the time and energy to make sure elderly people in the neighborhood are not forgotten, to the immigrant who has trouble speaking a new language because it is just that, new — not because of a lack of education.
“Bank Top” shows a tightknit community made up of real, breathing, pulsating human beings. Those people may dress differently or their speech may be flecked with different accents but, surprise, they aren’t all that different than anyone who is trudging through life trying to make it the best they can.
Easton’s photographs invite us to go beyond the surface of a place often given short shrift. They are an eloquent collection of scenes, with and without people, made up of richly forged textures. That’s just a fanciful way of saying that they show us real people making up a real place that defies a shallow reading.
You can see more of Easton’s work on his website, here. And you can find out more about the book and buy it, here.
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