April 10, 2019 / 11:52 AM / 10 months ago

A pop-up studio captures Londoners in Brexit's troubled age

LONDON (Reuters) - (Backstory is a series of reports showing how Reuters journalists work and the standards under which they operate.)

Heather Lighten laughs during a Reuters photoshoot in Dagenham, east London, Britain March 11, 2019. Picture taken March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew RC Marshall

“What do you want to take a picture of me for?”

Funeral director Heather Lighten seemed baffled when Reuters created a pop-up studio in her east London neighborhood and invited her and six others to pose for photos.

But for Reuters photographer Hannah McKay, the studio was perfect for capturing Lighten and other charismatic residents of Dagenham, the subject of “Wish You Weren’t Here: Postcards from the Edge of London in the Age of Brexit.”

For the past 15 years, immigrants from the European Union and beyond have poured into Dagenham, transforming what was once a predominantly white British community.

In 2016, Barking and Dagenham was one of just five of London’s 32 boroughs to vote to leave the EU.

McKay created the studio by converting a conference room at Kingsley Hall, a bustling community center in Dagenham set up nearly a century ago by two peace activists.

Her subjects - who also included a boxer, a pastor and a grocer - visited the room over two days.

“The studio was an intimate space at the heart of the community, which helped calm people’s nerves in front of the camera,” McKay said.

She said her subjects were “pleasantly surprised” when she showed them the result.

One of them, a young Dagenham boxer called Alfie Lee, joked that he looked like a model for a sportswear company.

For Reuters reporter Andrew MacAskill, Dagenham was a break from covering a British parliament that has been struggling to break the Brexit deadlock.

Over the space of six months, he and colleague Andrew Marshall spoke to people in cafes, shops, pubs and social clubs to gauge their opinions during a time of great political upheaval.

“Getting to know Dagenham helped me understand why so many Britons feel let down by politics,” MacAskill said. “Almost everyone we interviewed felt politicians were remote and unaccountable.”

MacAskill met young people in Dagenham who were optimistic about their futures and seemed unfazed by the mass immigration that had so transformed the area.

“It’s the older generation who have less mobility and who feel the changes to Dagenham more deeply,” he said. “It’s easy to understand their anxieties as they watch an old way of life disappear.”

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Hannah McKay and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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