Justine Roland-Cal: The Block

Our Highlight section focuses on artists who live or work in social housing. Justine Roland-Cal is a self-taught artist who uses black and white photography to document her surroundings in the East End of London, in particular, the highrise flat where she lives. Her interest in participatory projects stems from her background in working on socially motivated projects with homeless people and those with substance dependency issues.

“I am a social documentary photographer and have lived in the East End of London for 20 years, so I’m witnessing the effects of gentrification and social cleansing first-hand. I have begun to document these changes in the area over the last few years, developing my pictures in a local community darkroom. I live in a tower block rented from Hackney Council. I have always been fascinated by the diversity of inhabitants and the feeling of solidarity between people within this community. The block is situated on Broadway Market, a bustling area of the East End, and the people housed within these walls is an intriguing contrast to the gentrifying streets outside.

Years ago, the block was a hard-to-let property. Now we have a landscaped garden and a concierge service. Many of the concierges have worked here for years and are an intrinsic part of our community. I’d been considering a project photographing people within their flats for a while, fascinated that the interior of flats with the same architectural footprint can be so different. I noted when visiting neighbours previously how their use of space, decor, and individual style reflected both their personality and heritage.

When lockdown came, the community came together through a gardening project. I noticed more people were using the communal garden, the connection of nature and caring for the garden coordinated by the COVID 19 support group within the block. At this point I started taking peoples portraits. There are over 100 residents and I managed to obtain a small community grant of £250 to help towards darkroom costs, developing and materials. In the summer of 2020, I placed twenty A4 laminated prints on the railings outside Chats Palace, the local arts centre where I use the dark room facilities. The exhibition was entitled The Block, and although this happened with limited resources during lockdown, there was a great reaction, including an interview with the local gazette.

My aim is to continue to develop this project both in terms of photographic social commentary and the physical scale and aesthetic quality of the exhibition. Within the block, I want to continue to photograph residents, potentially in their home, and to write a short biography on how long they have lived in the area and how they have been affected by the lockdown. It will be interesting to capture the demographic of the residents and concierges and see how they have changed during these times. I am passionate about preserving this unique pocket of London before it disappears completely, alongside capturing the diversity of its residents, from those who have been here since the 1950s, to the newer arrivals who moved as the area has gradually become more gentrified.”

See more of Justine’s work on her website.