In the late summer of 2013, photographer Philipp Ebeling laced up his hiking boots and left his home in Dalston, east London. His destination was Romford, a small suburban town 12 miles (19 km) away but still technically within the boundaries of London.
From that first night in Romford, Ebeling walked the entire border of London, a 155-mile (249 km), 10-day trip. He did so because he wanted to capture “the parts of the city we tend to almost completely forget,” he says. “They’re in-between places, and they’re often subject to a great deal of change. It’s where people tend go when they first arrive in London. But very little attention is paid to them.”
Ebeling, 39, is an immigrant himself. Born in a village of less than 2,000 people in the rural reaches of Hanover, Germany, he moved to London at 19 to study photography at the London College of Communications (then known as the London College of Printing).
“I remember getting the train into the centre from Stansted Airport on my first visit here,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the size of the place, how the city just went on and on and on. I felt this compulsion to know every last corner of the place, to understand it as fully as I could. For years, I criscrossed the city on my bike, finding new routes to places, exploring new neighbourhoods, getting lost, trying to soak up every detail.”
On his journey, a mile from his home, Ebeling crossed the neighbourhood of Hackney Wick and into the new Olympic Village. Built from the elephant’s graveyard of old Stratford, it was designed as a state-of-the-art home for London’s 2012 Games. “I saw freshly planted trees in a perfect grid, curious cyclists and dog walkers – but everything was still mostly empty,” Ebeling says of the Olympic Park.
He continued to the edges of Hackney, crossing under the North Circular Road – the 26-mile (14 km) ring road around London – to head on to Romford, a part of the city with less regimented urban planning than the new Stratford.
The next morning, Ebeling went on to Dagenham. He photographed children playing tennis on a court half-flooded by the rain of the previous day; then he lingered at Dagenham’s Sunday market, “taking pictures of cut glass figurines, make-up and cosmetics, umbrellas, push-up bras, fake fur coats, Adidas trainers, toilet paper, cleaning products, mobile phone cases, and a man with a machete opening coconuts.”
As he travelled through London’s outer regions, from Bromley to Enfield, Waltham Forest to Kingston, he created a remarkable new portrait of the city. Titled London Ends, the new book was published in December 2016 by Ebeling’s Fishbar publishing house.
The series is a love letter to the city, but one that is conflicted, unvarnished and not blind to the tensions, complexities and unease of the London beyond the moneyed centre.
Blending street portraits, architectural studies and great panoramic cityscapes, the series exhibits Ebeling’s eye for the small, easily overlooked details that make London such a varied, unpredictable home: a black Congregation at Holy Trinity Church in Tottenham Green; an old-school Turkish barber in Green Lanes, Harringay; a pie and mash shop in Waltham Forest; a Korean Air jetliner coursing over the trees of Hounslow; a temporary fairground in North Cheam, Sutton; the cormorants basking on the islands of Walthamstow Reservoirs.
What did he learn from so much engagement across so many areas of London? “I realised there aren’t any areas you can’t go to, there aren’t any areas where you feel unsafe,” he says. “There aren’t any areas dominated exclusively by one minority, or one social group of people.” Even so, the pace and scale of change such communities face, Ebeling acknowledges, is unprecedented.
Newham, a borough that features heavily in London Ends, is one example. In 1991, 57% of people in Newham identified as ‘White British’. By 2011, that figure was 17%; a total of 147 languages are spoken across the borough. According to the censuses taken in 2001 and 2011, the non-UK born population grew more in Newham than anywhere in London, with 72,285 additional residents. But the biggest percentage increase took place in neighbouring Barking and Dagenham, amounting to 205%.
“That is a very big change,” Ebeling says. “And there are genuine shortages in things like housing and services. That’s before you consider other factors, like gentrification.” Yet he remains optimistic about the health of the UK’s capital. After all, London has a unique capacity to integrate, blend and mix the many people who call it home, he says.
“The sheer number of people that come here from all over the world makes the place what is is… The lifestyle here is very different to other European cities. There has never been a grand plan for London. People are allowed to be random and unpredictable, to spill out on the street. That goes for the architecture, and for the culture too.”
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