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Friends and the importance of being genuine

Posted in Documentary Photography, London, Personal Work, and Street Cat

“Hah! Hello stranger! Here is my journalist stalker!”

Those words greeted me as I arrived to see an old friend who I hadn’t seen since last summer.

Everyone, meet Paul.

He is a 55 year-old Canadian Big Issue seller, whose regular pitch is near Spitalfields Market and Aldgate East. I met him when I shot a batch of photos on film. Yesterday, I did some colour digital shots and they’re the ones that start this series.

I came across Paul mid May after trawling through the square mile and saw hidden in the recesses of his leather jacket was a little black face of a pudgy kitten. Previously, in April a year ago, my own cat, Cass had died suddenly of a heart attack before he’d even reached two years-old, so to see a tiny kitten reminiscent of the cat I was grieving over drew me in to find out more about this man’s story.

Paul lives in Mile End and I spent several summer days getting to know him and travelling together from his home to his pitch whilst I documented the goings-on.

Paul was born in the UK. His family moved to Toronto when he was eight years-old and he spent over thirty years there but didn’t think to get his Canadian citizenship. He got into trouble, was arrested and charged for burglary and imprisoned. Wanting to spend as much time as he could in Canada, so his two kids could visit him, he chose to serve his full three-year sentence instead of fourteen months. After this, Paul was deported to the UK, as he said he was “deemed a danger to society”. Shocked by how life can “suddenly change”, he found himself alone in London without his family, friends, children and partner.

His first experiences of street homelessness were in Hackney sleeping on the stairs of the church as they provided food for rough sleepers. This was a real change of fortunes from when he was working as a carpenter for his own business in Toronto. He dreams of being a carpenter here but struggles to find a way into it without money or formal qualifications. Paul is caught financially as he didn’t live in Canada for long enough for him to draw a pension and here in the UK, he has no contributions for the state pension. Naturally, he is worried about surviving once he reaches pensionable age.

Initially, his partner worked for a Canadian airline and she would bring his children over to visit but after 9/11, the airline suffered losses and she lost her job. Since then, their relationship has broken down and he has not seen them for eight years. Missing his children growing up is big regret for Paul.

Hopelessness, depression and the trap of circumstances he can’t control weighs on Paul’s shoulders daily. Survival is about getting up and selling the Big Issue magazine as it gives some structure to his days. Arriving at noon at the Bishopsgate distribution pitch where he buys a few magazines off Lee and starts his day of selling whatever the weather or occasion.

Pooky is the name of the black kitten with ginger markings that perched on Paul’s shoulder when he was on his pitch. I met her mum, Bumpy, so called as she would bump Paul’s head in the morning to wake him up, when I visited Paul at home. Bumpy had adopted him and made her home with Paul in his uncertain temporary accommodation and a few weeks later, surprised him by giving birth to kittens in a cupboard. Pooky was eventually adopted and I was told over text that a second litter of kittens were born.

Bumpy is due her third litter of kittens in six weeks time and Paul showed me a photo of his favourite kitten ‘Lord Butters’ a beautiful ginger tom from the last litter who have all now been re-homed. Paul described the last birth: “Bumpy starts snuggling up next to me on the bed, and then it’s like she’s fighting an invisible cat and then one pops out! I put it into the cupboard where she had her first lot and she carries it out onto the bed again!”

When I saw him yesterday, he was in high spirits and we chatted about Thatcher, the state of the country and the recent cold snap. It was good to see him and I plan to visit again when I have time. I held onto the original black and white images as I was waiting to see Paul face to face before I put anything up.

I realised early, with journalism and photography that it has to speak to my own heart and ethics. I have always been interested in people, their stories and narratives and long may this curiosity and genuine desire to connect with people continue to shape my work and ideas.