A man lucky enough to live in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea can expect to reach his 84th birthday; the area claims the longest average lifespan of anywhere in the United Kingdom. But boys born in Calton, a small residential community about two-thirds of a mile (1km) east of Glasgow’s city centre, may miss out on 30 years: the average male life expectancy there is just 54. That’s worse than in Pyongyang, North Korea, where male life expectancy is 71, or even in Iraq, where it’s 67. And although women fare better, the disparity is still high: a baby girl’s life expectancy in Calton is 75; in Kensington and Chelsea, 87.
Photographer Dougie Wallace – who goes by the moniker 'Glasweegee' – grew up in what he calls “the tenements” of Glasgow. He has a knack for capturing life at its most extreme and garish, but his portraits are anything but staged: Wallace gets close to his subjects, a flash in one hand and a camera in the other, catching them in accidental, often unaware moments. Most of the time, he’s gone before they realise what’s happened.
For the past year, he has used this technique to photograph the streets of both Kensington and Chelsea and of his hometown, trying to understand why certain parts of Glasgow are worse for one’s health than a war zone – and why, just 400 miles (644km) away, life can be so long. And not just long, but plentiful.
“The difference in fortunes is not only apparent in mortality,” Wallace says of the residents in Kensington versus Glasgow, “but in the cut of their suits and coats, the accessories they carry, the way the women apply their make-up. Even their expressions tell a tale.”
The Calton case
In Calton, residents are more likely to commit suicide or have an alcohol-related death than those anywhere else in the country
Calton is an extreme case, he says. But it’s also a familiar story: once a village founded on domestic weaving, Calton became a community of foundry and shipyard workers during the Industrial Revolution. Now, according to the local council’s most recent statistics, more than 40% of the 17,982 working age people in the area don’t have jobs. In Calton, residents are more likely to commit suicide, be the victim of crime or have an alcohol-related death than those anywhere else in the country. More than 50% smoke. Fast food, boozers, payday loan companies and betting shops line the streets.
But statistics are one thing. Seeing the faces of those affected – and photographing them – is another.
“It brought it home how much more deprived life is there,” Wallace says. “People age at a quicker rate. Deep cross-hatched lines, broken veins and missing teeth are ubiquitous in the faces I photographed. Children are often obese.”
When he photographs a passing bus in Hackney, London, Wallace says, he’s not sure what kinds of subjects he’ll get. “This isn’t true of some areas of Glasgow,” he says. “The look is often depressed, downtrodden, malnourished.”
Putting on the Ritz
Despite having an affinity – and concern – for the people and culture he grew up with, Wallace says, he surprised himself when he started to photograph Knightsbridge. He focused on an area he calls “Harrodsburg”, bounded by the luxury department store Harrods in Brompton Road, well-heeled Sloane Square and the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. He found that he wanted to defend the people there, the ‘old guard’, against a new phenomenon. “My photography became an exposé of an ultra-affluent international elite who have turned London into a global reserve currency,” he says.
It’s an exposé of the international elite that turned London into a global reserve currency – Dougie Wallace
Many of the natives of Kensington and Chelsea whose portraits Wallace has captured unawares are the “traditional, subtle British posh,” he says – prim elderly women, men in colourful corduroy, younger ladies “artfully thrown together to look like the Duchess of Cambridge”.
But he also snapped the wealthy immigrants of Harrodsburg: those who have invested in the area from abroad, and who may, or may not, be making London their new home. In 2012, even as the British economy stagnated, £83 billion in cash was spent on London property, Wallace is keen to point out. In Kensington and Chelsea, where the average asking price for a property is £2.29million, 75% of new-property buyers are foreign; 40% of properties remain empty for large tracts of the year.
In Harrodsburg, Wallace photographed young men in “gold-plated Bugattis encrusted with Swarovski crystals,” women struggling with more designer shopping bags than they could possibly carry, and the ‘Ramadan Rush’ – a yearly shopping spree over the Eid Festival. These images, he says, are proof of “the changing face of our city.” And they are not changes that are shared across Britain.
“Go to Glasgow and tell them that Britain is booming again,” Wallace says. “The notion will be greeted with a hollow roar.”
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