Do you genuinely appreciate the levels of poverty around you? Do you consider what impact the lack of good quality social housing has on children and families? A new exhibition at London’s Foundling Museum shines a light on both these issues.
Called Bedrooms of London, the exhibition is just that: A series of photographs showing the rooms where children sleep. All the families that took part in the project are living in poverty and I accepted an invitation to attend a preview, just before it opened to the public. The photographs were taken by established photographer Katie Wilson.
While London is a fabulously wealthy city, there is also a lot of poverty. Poverty charity The Childhood Trust, which worked with Wilson to produce the exhibition, estimates that 700,000 children in the capital live below the poverty line. Considering the population of London is just over 8 million, that’s a staggering number.
The exhibition tells the stories of these children. No people appear in the images and Wilson doesn’t seem to have used any elaborate lighting to illuminate the rooms. It’s simply the rooms and their contents, lit the way they are lived in and this gives the images an imposing air.
Darshna, Gita and Dipesh are triplets. They live in one room with their mum and dad. The family lost everything, including cash savings, in a house fire. Ashwin, the dad, is holding down two jobs but cash is very, very tight.
Jane is a young baby who lives with her mother in a bedsit. There’s nowhere suitable to cook and no other families in the hostel. There are nightly parties in other rooms and substance abuse is rife among other residents.
Nadine, 17, Crystal, 16, Peter 15 and Simone, 9 live in a two bedroom flat with their parents. They share the one bedroom, sleeping on two sets of bunk beds and the image shows the bedroom is very cramped.
Christopher, aged four and Simon, aged two, live at home with their mum, Sainey. Sainey was trafficked to the UK to work as a domestic slave. Although she’s now free, she simply has no money to buy clothes for her children.
There are numerous other stories involving people escaping female genital mutilation, domestic abuse and sexual abuse. There are also families trying their very best with children who have medical conditions.
It’s a very sobering exhibition. It shows in very simple terms just how poor the quality of social housing can be and graphically demonstrates how the Government’s austerity measures are having a major impact on the poorest members of society. While all the images on display were taken in London, I can imagine families in towns and cities across the UK dealing with exactly the same issues.
I was touched by one particular story, it’s of Fabrice a 19 year old who is very enthusiastic about American football. Fabrice was bullied at school and developed an eating disorder. Despite these challenges, he is now studying at a Russell Group University and has won a scholarship to play American Football for a college team in the United States.
With his background, Fabrice admits he sometimes struggles to fit in. He says “his own” working class people think he’s better than they are while he says if he goes into an upper-class area “I look like the guy that’s going to rob your house.” It must be difficult for Fabrice, but he seems to be carving out a future that could ensure his own children don’t have to live in such conditions.
Wilson spent two years visiting families and recording their stories for the Bedrooms of London project. I met her at the preview and asked her a bit more about the project. She said she admired the “tenacity” of the families involved and said they often acknowledged that while their own lives were tough, others had it tougher.
Wilson also expressed concern for children who are presently living in poverty. She said: “If children think this is as good as it gets, what about the next generation?”
I asked what she hopes the exhibition will achieve: Wilson said: “I hope people come away with a better understanding and empathy. I hope they do something, donate to a food bank or start one. Come here and make your own mind up.”
The Childhood Trust, meanwhile, has produced a report, also called Bedrooms of London. The charity, which is focused on dealing with poverty-related issues within London, says the number of households in London living in temporary accommodation has increased by 50% since 2011.
With London’s average house price in 2018 being £478,853, the charity claims that many families are priced out of private home ownership. This, in turn, increases demand for social housing. In 2017, 242,668 people were on the waiting list for social housing.
This creates conditions where unscrupulous landlords can provide poor quality properties and insecure tenancies. Almost a quarter of London’s privately rented properties are considered “indecent” according to The Childhood Trust. The Bedrooms of London exhibition shows in real terms how some families are having to tolerate very poor living conditions as a result.
With its background of helping families and children, The Foundling Museum is the ideal place for such an exhibition. I came away feeling incredibly fortunate that I do not face the issues of those whose homes feature in the exhibition.
Nonetheless, it was inspiring. It made me want to find out more about the impact of austerity measures on London’s population and elsewhere and as Wilson said, it gave me a better understanding of what others are facing and, to be frank, I felt embarrassed that people face living in such conditions in Britain today.
Bedrooms of London runs from today, 8 February 2019 until 5 May 2019. The exhibition is taking place at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ.
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