Documenting London’s Most Traditional Eateries

After spending the last 25 years travelling and working across the globe, Stuart Freedman turns his focus to his native London to document a cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners, the Eel, Pie and Mash shops.

All pictures © Stuart Freedman, from the Englishman and the Eel

By Pol Artola @artolariera
April 27, 2017

After spending a long time working mostly abroad and focusing on dark subjects such as violence, poverty and famine, Stuart Freedman spend the last couple of years re-discovering the places where he comes from. His second book, The Englishman and the Eel (Dewi Lewis), is a portrait of London’s most traditional eateries, the Eel, Pie and Mash shops, their food, their historical architecture and, most importantly, their people. “I think that it’s in reality far easier to focus on what’s alien, the unfamiliar, different cultures and lives. But if photography is a vehicle for reflection and examining the world, I’ve increasingly felt that I should examine my own roots, and the place I fled to become a journalist.”

With his previous book, The Palaces of Memory, also published by Dewi Lewis and finalist for the POYi Best PhotoBook 2016 award, he explored the Indian Coffee Houses, establishments that allowed him a window on a very ordinary India. “These spaces are often overlooked by journalists as simply functional but one has to look closer. Like the coffee shops of Cairo (the Ahwas that have always been politically and culturally significant) the Indian Coffee Houses are what the Bengali’s call Addas – places to talk, discuss and argue. One can gain a lot and learn a great deal about a culture by just sitting and listening, and I think that photographers (and I too have been guilty of this) are all too focused on getting the ‘right’ picture, blundering about after parachuting into a situation with little background knowledge or interest in what surrounds them.”

Born in Hackney in the 1960’s, Freedman recalls that when he was growing up “the streets were navigated by pubs, rough, cheap cafes and eel, pie and mash shops. Often elaborately decorated with ornate Victorian tiling, many sold live eels in metal trays that faced the street to the fascination, and sometimes horror, of passersby.” Although the eel and pie and mash shops are dwindling in the traditional areas of the East End, new ones are opening in Essex and the suburbs. “That tracks the migration of East Enders away from the Inner cities. I’ve recorded both the decline and this out of London blossoming.”

Freedman’s pictures don’t offer the stereotyped portrait of working-class life that is so often photographed – extreme poverty or violent youth. “England has only acknowledged its working class when it asks them to fight and die in its wars. At most other times it either demonises them as feckless and feral or laughs at them. I’ve used the eel, always a staple food of the London poor as a metaphor: in decline, threatened, but tenacious. And still surviving.”

Documenting London’s Most Traditional Eateries

After spending the last 25 years travelling and working across the globe, Stuart Freedman turns his focus to his native London to document a cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners, the Eel, Pie and Mash shops.

All pictures © Stuart Freedman, from the Englishman and the Eel

By Pol Artola @artolariera
April 27, 2017

After spending a long time working mostly abroad and focusing on dark subjects such as violence, poverty and famine, Stuart Freedman spend the last couple of years re-discovering the places where he comes from. His second book, The Englishman and the Eel (Dewi Lewis), is a portrait of London’s most traditional eateries, the Eel, Pie and Mash shops, their food, their historical architecture and, most importantly, their people. “I think that it’s in reality far easier to focus on what’s alien, the unfamiliar, different cultures and lives. But if photography is a vehicle for reflection and examining the world, I’ve increasingly felt that I should examine my own roots, and the place I fled to become a journalist.”

With his previous book, The Palaces of Memory, also published by Dewi Lewis and finalist for the POYi Best PhotoBook 2016 award, he explored the Indian Coffee Houses, establishments that allowed him a window on a very ordinary India. “These spaces are often overlooked by journalists as simply functional but one has to look closer. Like the coffee shops of Cairo (the Ahwas that have always been politically and culturally significant) the Indian Coffee Houses are what the Bengali’s call Addas – places to talk, discuss and argue. One can gain a lot and learn a great deal about a culture by just sitting and listening, and I think that photographers (and I too have been guilty of this) are all too focused on getting the ‘right’ picture, blundering about after parachuting into a situation with little background knowledge or interest in what surrounds them.”

Born in Hackney in the 1960’s, Freedman recalls that when he was growing up “the streets were navigated by pubs, rough, cheap cafes and eel, pie and mash shops. Often elaborately decorated with ornate Victorian tiling, many sold live eels in metal trays that faced the street to the fascination, and sometimes horror, of passersby.” Although the eel and pie and mash shops are dwindling in the traditional areas of the East End, new ones are opening in Essex and the suburbs. “That tracks the migration of East Enders away from the Inner cities. I’ve recorded both the decline and this out of London blossoming.”

Freedman’s pictures don’t offer the stereotyped portrait of working-class life that is so often photographed – extreme poverty or violent youth. “England has only acknowledged its working class when it asks them to fight and die in its wars. At most other times it either demonises them as feckless and feral or laughs at them. I’ve used the eel, always a staple food of the London poor as a metaphor: in decline, threatened, but tenacious. And still surviving.”

Back The Englishman and the Eel on Kickstarter and follow Stuart on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow @artolariera and @photojournalink on Twitter.
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