Speaking for Ourselves

London through the lens: Manal’s story

London through the lens: Manal’s story

Anna Marsden

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - London through the lens: Manal’s story

“As an urban ethnographer and photographer my camera is the lens through which I see the city. The camera helps me pause and reflect. In a context of growing ultra-nationalism and populism in which racism, fear and othering are not only toxic and divisive but also dangerous, my commitment is to show that people do get on together, people can share the same place and have shared experiences, despite the apparent differences.”

This is how Manal, a Palestinian photographer who moved from Jerusalem to London more than ten years ago, sees her work.

“I come from a place where racial hierarchy is the norm and the law,” she continues. “It’s so beautiful to see the mixture of different backgrounds and cultures in London, and how enriching that can be! I want to celebrate this.”

Manal came to the UK with a studentship from the British Council to do a Masters degree in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and later continued her studies there with a PhD in Urban Sociology. She wanted to study at an institution that is multicultural but also wanted to explore new places and to experience life in a cosmopolitan city.

Manal has an interdisciplinary academic background (with a previous BA in Sociology and a Masters in Middle Eastern and European Studies from Israel) and a strong commitment to social and environmental justice.

Her work is focused on urban issues and the daily life of people in their spaces. Her PhD thesis, under the supervision of Professor Paul Gilroy, investigates "the Palestinian city in Israel" and looks into the relationship between space, power exclusionary-exclusive politics and (post)colonial governmentality.

In London she was a co-founder of “Focus E15”, a housing campaign that started in 2013 and soon gained national and international recognition. The campaigners were young single mothers all below 25 who were served with eviction notices by a housing association in Stratford, East London, and whom Newham Council wanted to re-house in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings. The creative and vibrant campaign had a strong presence in the streets of Newham and was successful in that the mothers were re-housed in London.

Manal’s photography projects are based on her passions and look into processes such as gentrification, inequality, housing, play, and urban health.

Many projects are based in Hackney, where Manal lives, and document different aspects of social life in this area that is one of the most multi-ethnic in London. One of her ongoing projects is about a primary school – A School in Hackney – and is a portrait of the school’s families.

“Children, especially at a young age, are not corrupted by racism and class. They don’t see ‘apparent’ differences as something divisive,” explains Manal. “They just want to have fun, they want to play and form friendships, and don’t care whether your parents come from Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe or Bedfordshire.

“We are all human beings and this is what we need to celebrate. I’m impressed and reassured by the culture of inclusivity that the school promotes. I’m so happy that my children go to a school that is multicultural and inclusive.”

Another project is based around the Hackney Playbus, a converted double-decker bus that is driven around the most deprived housing estates in Hackney offering a chance for the local community to come together and enjoy various activities. Taking her children to the Playbus sessions was the inspiration for Manal to start the project.

Manal’s photography projects also stress the importance of the environment and educating children to experience, know, and love nature.

“It’s important to remember that nature can and should be accessible in urban environments,” she says. “London is one of those cities which is generous with its accessible amazing parks, marshes, little woods, allotments. Simple Pleasures is a series of photographs that highlights the pleasure children can get from simply being out in nature with friends, playing, getting messy and muddy.

“In a world of social atomisation and hyper consumerism, it is important to make children have interest in the simplest things and allow them just to be kids and play. Nuture/Nurtured, a project about a forest school in a Hackney nursery, is another project that highlights the same themes.”  

Much of Manal’s work is published on her website, but this is in itself still a new project and more work from past and ongoing projects will be added to make it even richer.