Outsiders in London - Milan Svanderlik - ebook

Outsiders in London ebook

Milan Svanderlik

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The term ‘outsiders’ often has negative connotations: these are the people who are regarded as ‘them’ in contrast to ‘us’, the arrivals from distant provinces or foreign lands, those not quite belonging, those not exactly fitting in, those not conforming. Of course, there is another side to this coin: there are those who stand out quite deliberately, who choose to go against the grain, the ones who challenge established social, cultural or religious norms, who question the policies and orthodoxies broadly accepted by those of us who are of the mainstream, who are ‘inside the tent’. Outsiders in London, an artistic socio-political project exhibited in central London in Spring 2015, aims to reveal through fine photographic portraits and often touching, deeply personal life stories something of the lives of 41 individuals, who perceive (or have perceived) themselves as ‘outsiders’ in one way or another, and to celebrate both that they have survived and what they have achieved. It is also to be hoped that every one of us will recognise in some of these images, and life stories, a little bit (perhaps a lot) of ourselves or of someone close to us. They might be Londoners but the topics covered are universal. The Photographer, Milan Svanderlik, is a veteran observer of the extraordinary diversity and beauty of nature, people and life in general and his previous project, 100 Faces of London, was exhibited in London in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics. Milan has also conducted and transcribed all the interviews with his sitters. Gerald Stuart Burnett was born to émigré Scottish parents in a small Cheshire market town. Graduating from the University of Stirling, he went on to the University of Nottingham before pursuing a long career in the Education Service. Gerald’s project role has been primarily as editor, painstakingly reworking the text of each ‘life story’ into its current form.

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The Imprint Page

Outsiders in London

Milan Svanderlik with Gerald Stuart Burnett

Copyright: © 2015 Milan Svanderlik, London, UK

published by: epubli GmbH, Berlin

www.epubli.co.uk

ISBN 978-3-7375-8367-1

All rights reserved.

The Project

The term ‘outsiders’ often has negative connotations: these are the people who are regarded as ‘them’ in contrast to ‘us’, the arrivals from distant provinces or foreign lands, those not quite belonging, those not exactly fitting in, those not conforming.

Of course, there is another side to this coin: there are those who stand out quite deliberately, who choose to go against the grain, the ones who challenge established social, cultural or religious norms, who question the policies and orthodoxies broadly accepted by those of us who are of the mainstream, who are ‘inside the tent’.

This project aims to illustrate how many of us will experience the feeling of being an outsider at some stage in our lives; how some of us are labelled as (or feel ourselves to be) outsiders from the very outset but manage to turn this into an advantage, or perhaps just make the best of it; how some of us are crushed by the burden of being ‘on the outside’, while others grapple with it, grow stronger and, in overcoming adversity, quite often come to lead exceptional lives, making singular contributions to society.

Outsiders in London aims to reveal something of the lives of 40 such individuals, who perceive (or have perceived) themselves as ‘outsiders’ in one way or another, and to celebrate both that they have survived and what they have achieved. It is also to be hoped that every one of us will recognise in some of these images, and life stories, a little bit (perhaps a lot) of ourselves or of someone close to us.

This project has a strong link to its predecessor project, 100 Faces of London, also shown in the Gallery in the Crypt, St. Martin-in-the-Fileds, London, just before the 2012 Olympics, as it too highlights the extraordinary diversity of people in London; this time, a more explicit socio-political slant is revealed by means of the addition of substantial biographical information about each sitter.

Over a period of twelve months, during 2013/14, forty brave people volunteered to take part in this project and made their way to the studio in Chiswick, where they spent several hours being photographed and interviewed by Milan.

Sadly, a number of self-evidently important topics could not be addressed as it simply proved impossible to find people with the relevant kind of experience who also had the courage to take part – to some extent, this difficulty had been foreseen but despite every reasonable step having been taken (and many favours called in!) it was just not possible, within the resources available, to secure sitters with certain kinds of life history.

With much greater success was the intention to include several well-known, high-profile individuals realised;  despite being ‘outsiders’, these are people who have contributed a great deal to society in very public ways and who have become justly famous.

Photography:

Though a photographic art form practised nowadays by only the few, formal studio portraiture was chosen quite deliberately, as Milan firmly believes that such portraits are as much the creation of the sitter as they are of the photographer. His studio-based technique, with ample time allowed for each portrait, has engendered a closeness between sitter and photographer that is almost tangible in these images of Londoners. Echoing a remark of the famous photographer, Irving Penn, Milan says when working this way a photographer cannot help but ‘fall in love a little’ with each of the sitters he observes through the lens: inner beauty and spirit are liberated, allowed to surface, and instantly captured, to be held for all time. All the sitters kindly agreed to travel to a temporary studio in Chiswick, where they were photographed just as they were, or as they wished to present themselves: clothing, hairstyle, make-up, and jewellery were left entirely at the discretion of the sitters.

All images were captured using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III digital camera, together with a single fixed-focus lens (a rather special Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II). Quite deliberately, the lens was set at a wide aperture (f 4.0) creating a very shallow depth of field; this allowed the eyes to be kept pin sharp with the rest of the face drifting softy out of focus – the ‘Bokeh effect’. The images were taken in maximum-resolution ‘RAW’ format and then processed using Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop software.

Scope:

The project commenced in April 2013, and the photography and interviews of the 40 individuals who participated took 12 months to complete.

The hardest and, without doubt, the most important part of the project was to find individuals who were willing and able to take part and to talk freely about why they felt like outsiders and how this had affected their lives. It is true that a list of categories was drawn up at the start but, over the months, this list changed almost beyond recognition as volunteers came forward and recounted their stories. It might be said that the photographer, Milan Svanderlik, created the framework for the project and the extraordinary content of the sitters’ lives then shaped it and fleshed it out. Of course, life is mostly complicated and cannot easily be compartmentalised: there are some individuals whose stories could fit comfortably into several different categories, but the initial list was created primarily to help make sure that none of the commonest or most obvious reasons why people feel themselves outsiders was overlooked – it also helped to avoid duplication. Sadly, in the event, a number of important topics have had to be left out, simply because, with the resources available, it proved impossible to find people who had the right kind of life experience and who were willing to come forward. To some extent, this was perhaps to be expected.

Interviews:

With their photography sessions complete, the sitters were interviewed by Milan in private and, with their agreement, these exchanges were recorded. While they were sometimes encouraged to cover a specific experience or feature of their lives, they often chose to paint a much broader picture and, sometimes for the first time, a number of sitters chose to discuss deeply personal and intimate issues they had had to face, and in this they were not discouraged. These interviews often proved to be deeply emotional experiences but also formed an essential and extraordinary part of the project, both for the interviewer and the interviewees. The recordings were then transcribed and sometimes restructured by Milan, who sought to set them in context, following which they were painstakingly reworked by the project’s editor, Gerald Stuart Burnett, who has striven to bring a degree of coherence and a consistency of style and structure to the text of each story.

It should be remembered that while this is primarily a photographic project, Milan has no hesitation whatsoever in saying that, in many ways, the life stories of the sitters are as important as their images, and though they obviously tell something about the unique lives of 40 individual Londoners, the topics and the situations they deal with are unquestionably universal.

The Authors

This is an unusual foray into photographic portraiture insofar as the images of the sitters are accompanied by a short summary of their ‘stories’, followed by much fuller descriptions of the way or ways in which they prceive themselves as outsiders.   This approach has demanded close collaboration between the Photographer and the Editor.

Milan Svanderlik was born in 1948, in Northern Bohemia, and was educated partly in the former states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and partly in the UK. He has lived and worked in Croatia, in Switzerland and for over 40 years in London. A veteran observer of the extraordinary diversity and beauty of nature, people, and life in general, Milan studied Botany abroad and Photography in London – combining both these interests, he has exhibited plant photographs in London’s Photographers’ Gallery. In addition to portraiture and plant studies, Milan’s photographic work encompasses travel photography, landscape, still life and photo-reportage. 

Milan’s recent major artistic endeavour, 100 Faces of London, comprised portraits of 100 Londoners, celebrating the extraordinary diversity of people who live and work in the capital. This highly successful project culminated in a five-week exhibition of all 100 portraits at The Gallery in the Crypt, St Martin-in-the-Fields, in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Seen by several thousands of Londoners and tourists alike, the exhibition was well received.

The exhibition, Outsiders in London,Are you one, too? was also held at The Gallery in the Crypt from 23rd March to 8th May 2015.   Over seven weeks, the exhibition was seen by over 8,000 visitors - with strong links to its predecessor, it too emphasised the extraordinary diversity amongst Londoners, this time with a more explicit socio-political slant.

Gerald Stuart Burnett BA(Hons) MPhil FRSPH was born a long time ago to émigré Scottish parents in a small Cheshire market town. Educated at Sandbach School, he patriotically graduated from the University of Stirling, before undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Nottingham. Following a long, journeyman career in the Education Service, he concluded his full-time employment in a senior post at one of London’s larger FE colleges. Despite having spent much of his career ‘writing’ for one purpose or another, it has been a novelty for Gerald to undertake what has been primarily an editing role:  following transcription of the interviews conducted by Milan Svanderlik, he has painstakingly reworked the text of each ‘life story’ into its current form.  Editorial supervision of all other written aspects of the project has also been his responsibility, so Gerald freely admits that any imperfections that remain must be down to him alone.

HALDUN (HAL) MUSAZLIOGLU (#01)

Political – Secular Anarchist

Age: 38

Born in Esslingen, Germany

Father & Mother both born in Turkey

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Turkish

Photography: London, 16th April 2013

Born to Turkish parents in Germany, Haldun was treated as an outsider at school, being seen, in his own words, as “a dodgy foreigner”.  On returning ‘home’ to Turkey for the holidays, he found he was an outsider there too, with people making it clear he was not ‘one of them’, but a Turk who had been “Germanised”.   Having come out at the age of 17, Hal later moved to London where he has lived since 1996.   As a gay man and self-styled ‘secular anarchist’, Hal fiercely rejects mainstream commercial ‘culture’, its homogeneity and its consumerism and he courts unconventionality through his striking appearance, his way of life, and the firm views he propounds about the world around him - his ‘outsiderdom’ is simply Hal being who he is.

HALDUN’S STORY

Raised and educated in Germany, Hal has lived in London since 1996.   He speaks four languages and, using his linguistic skills, formerly worked for the BBC in their online services.   He is currently working as a carer while studying to become a psychological counsellor. 

Born to Turkish parents in Germany, Hal was treated as an outsider at school, being seen, in his own words, as “a dodgy foreigner”.  Yet when returning ‘home’ to Turkey during the holidays, he felt he was an outsider there too;  people treated him in a manner that made it clear he was not ‘one of them’, but rather a Turk who had been “Germanised” – ‘Almanci’ in Turkish.  

Hal’s coming out as gay at the age of 17 not only created an even greater distance between him, his schoolmates (especially the Turkish-Muslim ones) and his family and friends, but also created a barrier with other nationalities.  

In London, Hal continues to feel like an outsider but since London is home to so many diverse people,  he says, “outsiderdom feels somewhat different here”.   Because he was born in Germany and chose himself to move to London, Hal feels much more at home here, even as an outsider.   He now frequents Heavy Metal bars and these are the places where he socialises with his friends, many of whom describe themselves as outsiders too, functioning mainly on the margins of society.  

His dress code/appearance is an expression, a consequence, of his mind-set, a mind-set that fiercely rejects commercial mainstream ‘culture’, its homogeneity and its seeming “collective blind-flock mentality towards consumerism”.   It is a way of displaying his distance and his disdain for a society that seems to know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.   Thus, his taste in music - Death/Heavy Metal, another music culture shunned by the charts and by commercial radio stations - is visibly expressed by wearing T-Shirts celebrating his favourite bands.   The many buttons, studs and spikes on his customised leather jackets and denim vest make it plain that none of them was purchased on the High Street.  

Hal further lives out his fetishes by wearing these garments as a matter of course, rather than reserving them solely for special, fetish-themed nights in clubs or bars.   For him, his numerous items of clothing in leather and rubber engender a blend of subversion, eroticism and “gemütlichkeit”, the sense of being comfortable and feeling well within oneself.   He used to be a Skinhead but, because of its tarnished politics, has moved on to become a Punk.  

Hal concedes that this mode of dress also makes him an outsider in the gay community, since it is seriously out of step with current trends in the way most gay men present themselves to the world.   He certainly stands out, and feels quite comfortable doing so, but he does admit that he frequently has to confront difficulties - tourists often take photographs of him in the street without so much as asking permission.

Hal accepts that the main disadvantage of his many tattoos and his unusual dress code is that it excludes him from certain jobs.   He has therefore had to consider this in the past when applying for posts.   Obviously, he was never interested in typical ‘suit-jobs’ and has thus worked mainly in either the media or in the travel industry, or he has taken jobs that he could do from home.  

He also has to take care when travelling abroad, especially to Istanbul, as his ‘look’ will seem aggressively western, secular, anti-Turkish and thus a threat;  it can cause a disturbance, especially in places that have become more Islamist in recent years, as have certain quarters of Istanbul and Turkey as a country in general.   So, with his Mohican and his extensive tattoos, Hal frequently has to take care.

Being the outsider gives Hal a strong sense of ‘self’.   “There is a reason”, he says, “why I look the way I do.   My ‘style’ is an expression of my mind-set.   As opposed to fashion, which by its nature is ephemeral and dependent on current fads and commercial tastes, any style that is an expression of a notion or an opinion is timeless.”   Which is the precise reason behind his disdain for fashion, the reason he has had to explain on numerous occasions to stunned, young fashion students on Brick Lane, before they proceed to take pictures of him.

Also, being an outsider allows him to look in, to survey and assess objectively the society he lives in.   In terms of politics, he sees himself as an “ardent, secular anarchist” and his reason for this is that he heartily opposes what he perceives to be the truly mind-bendingly dull and dangerous “consumerist bullshit”;  the fact that we are now seen only as consumers and no longer as citizens is a development that he feels is continuing.

The way Hal looks can also be perceived by some as an advantage:  he looks exotic and this can make him attractive to others who seek unconventionality or simply attract others who pick up on what he describes as “numerous cultural commonalities”, be they in terms of music, politics or sexuality.

Though undoubtedly an outsider to the world at large, Hal feels that he is very much a member of certain groups;  indeed, he feels comfortable anywhere where alternative people gather.   He is at home in the Punk and Heavy Metal scenes, on the fetish scene, with BDSM people, and with any other people who have a critical stance towards the society at large.   Politically, he remains steadfastly a “secular anarchist”.

Everything that makes Hal appear an outsider has the virtue of enabling him to look upon society from a different perspective;  when this is combined with his ethnic and cultural inheritance, it allows Hal to see the world around him with greater clarity.   On the one hand, this leaves him frequently puzzled;  on the other hand, it provides him with a lot of potential material for his stand-up comedy.

“Absolutely not!” is Hal’s unambiguous reply to being asked if, given the choice, he would opt not to be an outsider, as he feels the matter of ‘opting’ never arose in the first place.   His ‘outsiderdom’ is simply Hal being the person he is.   There are no other options.

Interview Date: 16th April 2013

Updated:  4th June 2013

ANDREW MAISEL (#02)

Maverick

Age: 52

Born in Watford, England

Father born in England / Mother in France

Ethnic heritage / Father: Jewish (Ashkenazi) / Mother: Jewish (Sephardi)

Photography: London, 19th April 2013

Andrew is a maverick:  from early childhood, he had the overwhelming feeling that he just did not belong.   When he was younger, Andrew was conscious of many more of the disadvantages of being on the outside but one benefit of getting older, he says, is that he no longer feels so much any need to conform.   A gay man from a suburban Liberal Jewish background, Andrew is a lover of music and culture who has worked in a number of roles at the BBC.   But neither in his working life nor in his home life has Andrew ever felt himself to be other than on the ‘outside’.   As an ‘odd man out’, he regrets that individuality, long celebrated in England, has been supplanted by baneful corporatism and a dreary uniformity.

ANDREW’S STORY

Raised in Northwood, Middlesex, Andrew was educated locally, attending Northwood Preparatory School before receiving his secondary education at the Merchant Taylors’ School in Moor Park.

Andrew commenced his professional career at the BBC with one year at Radio 3 before going up to read History at Warwick University.   As a graduate, he returned to the BBC as a researcher on the World at One (working for Robin Day and Gordon Clough) and he continued to work on BBC Radio News until 1987.   Andrew then moved over to BBC Television, initially as a researcher but progressing to become a senior broadcast journalist, a role in which he continued until his early retirement.  

Andrew became a dedicated convert to yoga after being diagnosed with early-onset osteoporosis in his late thirties.   He has practised Yoga 4 to 5 times a week for the last 15 years and the condition has been arrested.   Since leaving the BBC, Andrew has continued his interest in classical music, writing concert reviews for several publications.

From an early age, Andrew had the feeling that he did not belong.   Growing up in a rather typical, middle class London suburb, Andrew felt that he did not relate to the area, to the people who lived there, or to the values they espoused.   Having realised at the age of 12 that he was gay, Andrew felt even more distanced from this environment and to some extent from his own family too.   Being brought up in what was, broadly speaking, a secular Jewish home, Andrew felt he had little in common with the rest of the congregation at the Synagogue, which the family attended on high holy days.   “I didn’t feel I fitted into this world any more than I fitted into suburbia and what seemed the totally heterosexual world around me.”

“At school, I preferred the company of individuals to joining groups.   Even in Jewish youth clubs, I felt little in common with any of these people.”   To Andrew, London seemed the obvious place to live, surrounded by many outsiders, like himself, people on the fringes.   Subsequent visits to his home made Andrew feel increasingly removed from his suburban milieu. 

During his professional career too, he continued to feel like an outsider, seeming to have little in common with the people he worked with, most of whom were white, suburban and heterosexual, with values and aspirations often very different from his own.  These were people whose lives seemed dominated by work and the ‘world of news’, living with or marrying one other and sharing little experience with someone who had many interests outside this environment, including classical music and the opera, interests perceived as rather too elitist and not quite ‘in tune’ with the news audience.  He did, nevertheless, make lots of friends at the BBC, though they tended to be outsiders too, of one sort or another.

Amongst the disadvantages of being an outsider, Andrew feels that the ability to network is not only helpful but essential in many professions and he had an outsider’s aversion to it;  this was certainly not helpful. He thinks most large organisations tend to appoint individuals who are from similar backgrounds and share the same outlook.  In Britain generally, and particularly in journalism, networking was always closely linked to a culture of social drinking and eschewing this ritual placed one automatically on the outside.   When he was younger, Andrew was conscious of many more of the disadvantages of being on the outside but one benefit of getting older, he says, is that he no longer feels so much the need to conform.   “Without a doubt, the life of the outsider can be harder but also more rewarding;  but not conforming, not feeling part of any particular grouping does make your life more difficult.”

Andrew never felt the need to belong to any groups in the past and says he has no need for them now that he’s older.  “Of course”, he says, “in groups of gay men one feels one can be more honest about oneself but such associations always seem less rewarding than relationships with selected individuals, from every type of background, who are my friends.”

On the positive side, Andrew feels that being an outsider allows you more scope to develop your personality, to develop more as an individual.   But even this, of course, is a double-edged sword, as he perceives society to be now more conformist than he ever remembers.   Andrew feels that, in this country, the individual used to be celebrated, with individuality seen as a virtue, to be respected and recognised as a strength in the workplace and within organisations;  this is sadly no longer the case.  So, if you are happy to make your own way, to carve out your own path, the rewards can be greater but a certain strength is needed to swim against the tide - it can be tough.

“If I had the choice, would I choose not to be outsider?”, asks Andrew.   “Well, not any more.   I feel happy with who I am. “

Interview Date: 19th April 2013

Updated:  5th June 2013

NASEER MUHAMMAD (#03) With his pet dog, Brie

Muslim and Gay

Age: 43

Born in London, England

Father & Mother both born in British India (Pakistan)

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Punjabi

Photography: London, 26th April 2013

The Islamic position on homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues for Muslims living in the West, a major obstacle in the way of greater Muslim integration in Europe.   Naseer is British, Pakistani, Muslim and Gay.   Being born into a conservative Muslim household presented many challenges and possibilities but Naseer knew that at the heart of the Islamic faith is the belief that all of creation is equal in the eyes of God and that God alone can judge.   He believes passionately that diversity is a cause for celebration not condemnation or persecution;  his blog, http://bigotryhasnofriends.org, has allowed him to embrace and celebrate who he really is;  and for him, being tolerated is no longer enough, he wants to be celebrated as a gay Muslim and British Pakistani.

NASSEER’S STORY

The 2011 Census indicated that Islam is London’s largest and, without any doubt, most significant minority religion, with over 1 million people claiming to be Muslim.   Over 40% of Muslims in England now live in London.   The Islamic position on homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues for Muslims living in the West, and is seen as a major obstacle in the way of greater Muslim integration in Europe.

Naseer attended what he calls a “bog  standard” comprehensive school in South East London and went on to a local college to study for his A Levels.   Tragically, half way through his course, his younger brother died.   Completely disheartened by this turn of events, Naseer quit college and worked for a while in the Civil Service.   Based in the Treasury, he soon realised that without higher education, he would be consigned to doing mundane work forever.   Spurred on by this realisation, he took a degree in Business Management  and then decided to go on to take a post-graduate teaching qualification.   Following this, Naseer taught Economics to adults but found his students’ lack of interest and passion for the subject demoralising.  

Returning to his studies, he undertook an IT qualification and, on the strength of that, worked for a number of years in major companies in the City.   With this experience under his belt, he returned once more to study and pursued a Master’s Degree in research methodology.   His thesis explored the rise of Islamophobia in the West, pre- and post-9/11.   “The findings were not encouraging,” Naseer says, “as Islamophobia had been widespread before 9/11;  afterwards, it almost became respectable.”   On completing his Master’s Degree, Naseer had something of a mid-life crisis and decided to give teaching another go.   He taught in primary schools, mainly in the East and South-East of London but always felt like a square peg in a round hole ....

Naseer passionately believes that diversity is a cause for celebration not condemnation or persecution.   “Thankfully,” says Naseer, “I live in the UK where I am not persecuted for being gay.   Growing up here, I was grateful for being tolerated but it is no longer enough, I want to be celebrated as a gay Muslim and a British Pakistani.”

Naseer believes Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia have been both his friend and foe.    The inability of other people to accept him for being true to himself has had far-reaching consequences.  Naseer was encouraged to look beyond his superimposed identity, an identity that had been largely moulded by religious and cultural dogma.   “Prejudice and bigotry helped me to muster the strength and resilience to enable me to reject marriage.   Sadly, marriage is the reluctant choice many gay and bi-sexual British Pakistani men make, due to the entrenched homophobia in Muslim communities.”  

Naseer has been concerned for a long time about the widespread bigotry and ignorance that is still prevalent in many parts of the world,  especially the Islamic world.  “I lived a privileged, cosmopolitan lifestyle and had cocooned myself from all forms of bigotry.  Life had other plans:  my work and love-life fell apart in Spring 2012.”   During this dark time, Naseer found solace in writing.   He began to write about Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia based on his personal experiences.   Some 60,000 words later and unsure of what to do with this material, a good friend suggested a blog and helped Naseer to create his own, ‘www. bigotryhasnofriends.org’.   He is also writing his first book entitled, The Only Dishwasher in the Village.

‘British Pakistani Muslim and Gay’ (BRAKI) has allowed Naseer to embrace and celebrate who he really is.   Being born into a conservative Muslim household presented many challenges and possibilities.   At the heart of the Islamic faith is the belief that all of creation is equal in the eyes of God and only God alone can judge.    However, the picture of Islam which the western media portrays (especially post-9/11) was not the Islam Naseer recognised.   “We all know that Islam was hijacked by fundamentalist fanatics,” says Naseer, “I am not a practising Muslim in terms of  ritual, but I do hold my faith in high regard.”

One disadvantage of being an outsider, Naseer perceives, is that one is often pre-judged.   With a name like Muhammad, one is often assumed to be a fanatical Muslim, perhaps even a potential terrorist.   While Naseer has learned to deal with overt racism, Islamophobia and homophobia, they can be very subtle but just as damaging in polite middle class circles.   Naseer explains that he lost a well-paid job just because he was British Pakistani, Muslim and gay;  though this was never disclosed explicitly, he was in no doubt about the real reasons for his dismissal.  

Naseer also mentions the disadvantages he has felt of being “the other” in his own family.   While they were very decent and mature about it, his being gay and being diagnosed as HIV-positive did not go down very well, as one might imagine.   He was offered all kinds of ill-conceived  advice, like:  “Get married and carry on with your dirty ways, if you have to,” but after a while, they reconciled themselves to the fact that Naseer was not going to live a lie.  Naseer still wonders if they are entirely comfortable.   Probably not.   Naseer explains:  “I came out to my youngest sister at the age of 16;  I’m now 43;  it has been a long time but I suppose evolution is a slow process.”     Naseer tells an amusing story:  his first boyfriend was Scottish and when he broke the news to his youngest sister, her response left him bemused.   She was not happy that he was called Stewart:  “Is he WHITE?”, she demanded to know.   “If you HAVE to do it, why don’t you at least find a nice Muslim boy?   And I bet you he is not even circumcised!”

A major advantage of being an outsider, Naseer feels, is that he was compelled to confront his own bigotry more quickly and thoroughly than he would probably have done if he had not been an outsider himself.   “I believe passionately that ‘bigotry has no friends’;  it taught me that what unites us is greater than what divides us.   It is only possible for us to respect each person as another individual when we are true to ourselves.”   Being an outsider has given Naseer both strength and wisdom but, above all, he believes it has allowed him to know himself.

If given the choice not to be an outsider, Naseer says he would refuse;  having reached this stage of his life, he says he feels happy as a outsider:  “Belonging for me is defined by cultural and religious norms that can enslave you.  They stop you from discovering and celebrating who you really are.”

The aim of Nasseer’s blog is to confront misinformation and misunderstanding about homosexuality, Britain, Pakistan, Islam and the West;  it can be accessed at: http://bigotryhasnofriends.org

Interview Date: 26th April 2013

Updated:  26th  November 2014

GIULIA GENTILE (#04)

Divorced Woman

Some changes have been made to protect the sitter’s identity.

Age: 45

Born in Roma, Italy

Father born in Italy / Mother in Germany

Ethnic heritage / Father: Italian / Mother: German

Photography: London, 9th May 2013

Having a German mother, being bilingual, and starting her education at a German school in Italy made Giulia something of an outsider from the start.   However, being an outsider gave her a strong sense of identity and forced her to deal with confrontation from early on;  it was only with her relocation to the UK and then divorce that Giulia first associated pain with the experience of being on the outside.   Coming to England had been tough enough so divorce and the loss of many of the friends associated with her marriage had made her for the first time deeply negative about being an outsider.   But now, looking back on what she has come through, she is starting to feel optimistic again and to love being an outsider once more.

GIULIAS’S STORY

Giulia admits that, from her teenage years, she was a lover of motorbikes and as soon as she was 16, she bought herself a 125cc Moto Morini.   “It was a small but very ‘cool’ bike to have and from then on, up to the age of 27, I toured on motorbikes extensively.   We went from Rome right to Tunisia and even further in Africa.   I progressed to a Honda 400 and leather motor gear was always part of my wardrobe and my image.”  

Once motherhood intervened, though her passion for motorbikes remained undimmed, it had to be put on hold until the children grew up a bit, which of course they did;  Giulia is now the proud owner of a magnificent Harley Davidson and the joys of being on the road, on a bike, are hers once more.

Giulia attended the German School in Rome which, she says, was really a very positive experience.   She then progressed to study Geology and Mineralogy at Rome’s (Italian) University.   However, given that this was her first experience of the Italian education system, she admits to struggling a little in her first year.  Nevertheless, with her degree secured, Giulia went on to California to specialise further in Gemmology.  

Whilst she subsequently returned to Italy and to France, she decided to go back to the States, having accepted a good job as a gemmologist in New York;  she lived there for just over two joyful years - independent, single and young in what she calls, “the fastest city in the world”.   It was there that she met her husband to be - as it happened, an Englishman.

Though she had always seen herself as something of a Francophile, she followed her heart and her boyfriend impulsively, some might say irrationally, to Britain.   The relationship, which was “full of genuine, strong connections and passion”, was not without its storms but it did lead to marriage.   Giulia had a son and, shortly after that, twin daughters, now aged 13 and 11 respectively.   Concentrating on building a family changed her life completely and forever, of course, and in a very positive way, but unfortunately, the marriage itself was not destined to last;  she and her husband divorced while the children were still quite small, though Giulia remained in London where she has now lived for over 14 years.  

Having a German mother, being bilingual, and starting her education at a German school in Italy naturally made Giulia feel something of an outsider from the outset.   Though a major European capital, Rome was not at that time as multi-cultural as London, so her family did rather stand out and they were proud of it.  “Of course, I had always felt like an outsider, but I had never seen it as a negative;  indeed, I almost perceived it to be an advantage, a positive experience during most of my early years.  

The association of pain with the feeling of being on the outside really came for the first time with my divorce which brought about a more intense feeling of ‘otherness’ than I had ever experienced before.   Coming to England was already tough;  I had just followed my man and I didn’t know anyone, really, so the painful divorce and the loss of nearly all those people who were associated with our marriage (they were mostly his friends) made me deeply negative for the first time about being an outsider.   In England, I felt more on the outside than I had anywhere else in the world, even during my married life;  then, after the divorce, having lost most of my friends, I became a single mum as well, someone who no longer fitted into the polite world of couples, someone who had to work, and to look after three small children on her own.   A few good friends stuck by me and remained close - I cherish their friendship and they still remain close to me to this day - but my social life became almost non-existent.   All these factors made me feel painfully aware that I was ‘on the outside’.   I felt almost totally isolated and for the first time I found being an outsider very uncomfortable.”  

However, having been accustomed to the outside from her early years, Giulia had a very strong sense of identity.   “Strangely,” she says, “one would expect to develop a strong identity within a group, as part of something mutual and collective, but actually my experience has been exactly the opposite.   Being outside, one is forced to deal with confrontation and to do this, one has to deal with one’s own idea of self, often without support.   One is forced to grow stronger, to define oneself more precisely, to grow more, and to develop as an individual.”  

Giulia believes that this ‘enforced development’ does produce something beautiful in the end:  “It is probably the pain and hardship that come with being an outsider that ultimately lead to your experiencing a deeper happiness and greater appreciation of life.”

“My children are now teenagers, or are approaching their teenage years, and while that is the time when many youngsters are keen to fit in, to conform to all the trends, and almost to embrace uniformity, I encourage my children to be themselves and to nurture their own individuality.   I reassure them that being different is not necessarily a sign of weakness and that a feeling of belonging is not something superficial but something profound that we gradually nurture and develop deep inside ourselves;  it is the foundation of being at peace and in harmony with oneself.   Having spoken to a number of young people recently, I am strangely reassured that many of them seem not in fact to conform to orthodoxies;  they seem much more clued up than I was at their age and that gives me great hope for the future.”

If given the choice, Giulia is clear that she would always opt to be the outsider;  it is a strong preference and she feels that this has clearly been the case from the earliest stages of her life, probably as a product of her dual ethnicity.   “The feeling of strength, of being an outsider and surviving, the positive feeling that I used to associate with being an outsider in the past, is starting to come back to me and to supplant the dark, painful days that followed my coming to London, the failure of my marriage, and my divorce.   Now, looking back on what I have come through, I am starting to feel optimistic again and to love being an outsider once more:  it makes me stronger and more confident;  it actually gives me part of my identity.   Perhaps not fitting in was almost the identity I was looking for and that I had temporarily lost;  it was the identity I always wanted.”

Interview Date: 9th May 2013

Updated:  10th August 2014

CHRISTINE DE OLIVEIRA (#05)

Illegal Immigrant

Age: 40

Born in Tours, France

Father & Mother both born in Portugal

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Portuguese

Photography: London, 11th May 2013

Growing up in France with ‘foreign’ parents and a ‘foreign’ surname, Christine always had some feeling of being an outsider, but she would later suffer a more devastating encounter with exclusion.   Having moved to take a catering job in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, Christine was well-received;  her boss reassured her that he had taken care of all the paperwork, so she need not worry herself about work permits and suchlike.  All went well until the Swiss Immigration Police undertook a routine ‘raid’ of all the hotels and catering establishments in the locality.   Christine then found out, to her horror, that she had become quite unintentionally an illegal immigrant in Switzerland;  she was summarily deported by the Police, an experience which disrupted massively her professional life and left her emotionally scarred.

CHRISTINE’S STORY

Both of Christine’s parents are from Portugal;  they met there, lived together, and had their first three girls there.   Then in the 1970‘s, largely for economic reasons, they decided to move to Germany.   But while travelling across France, they fell in love with that country and decided to settle there instead.  They made their home in Tours where, in 1972, their fourth daughter, Christine, was born.  

Christine spent her first 27 years in France and received her primary and secondary education there.   She went on to qualify as a chef and worked in that field for several years but came to find it rather frustrating and limiting - she was distressed to see people consuming her ‘culinary creations’ within minutes and with hardly a thought.  She longed for greater interaction with the diners and so started to work ‘front of house’.   At that stage, she was bilingual, speaking her Portuguese mother tongue as well as French, of course.

Having grown up in France with ‘foreign’ parents and a ‘foreign’ surname, Christine always had some feeling of being an outsider, both in France and in Portugal, but she was soon to experience this much more acutely: to break free from what had become a heartbreaking romance, she “escaped” to neighbouring Switzerland and worked for one season in Ovronnaz, in the French-speaking canton of Valais.   For her second season, she moved on to another catering job in Crans-Montana, in the same canton.  Here she was well-received, with her boss kindly reassuring her that he had taken care of all the paperwork and that she need not worry herself about work permits and the like.  All went well until, in her second year of working in Crans-Montana, the Swiss Immigration Police undertook a routine ‘raid’ of all the hotels and catering establishments in the locality.   She then found out, to her horror, that she was in fact working illegally;  utterly dismayed and distraught, she felt that what had seemed a haven of safety and security was now collapsing around her.

Thankfully, the Police accepted her plea of innocence and instead of their standard course of action - immediate arrest and forced deportation - she was given a week’s notice to leave the country.  However, she still had to pay a hefty fine and was also barred from entering Switzerland again for four years.  Christine’s professional career came to an abrupt end;  she lost many dear friends;  and she felt tainted - she had been made to feel like a criminal, like a total outsider.  She had loved her life in Switzerland and was seriously contemplating staying there for the rest of her days.

“Becoming an outsider felt like not being a human being any longer,” Christine says; “I felt deceived and discarded.   I was crushed psychologically and it took me almost eighteen months to regain my confidence.   I put my CV on the internet the day after I’d spoken with the Immigration Police and I just took the first job that was offered to me after I was kicked out of Switzerland.   It was in Cannes that I found a seasonal catering job for nine months, but I couldn’t bring myself to socialise there because I felt like a pariah after what had happened to me.   I felt completely distracted and worked more or less like a robot.”

Feeling totally lost and utterly disconnected from the world, and not knowing whether there was any longer a point to life at all, Christine decided to retreat from people, people who seemed to judge her by what they saw on the outside and not who she was on the inside.   She went for one season to a remote golfing resort in the mountains near Perpignan, somewhere she could try to find herself again.   It felt to her as if those happy years in Switzerland had just been erased from her life.   “But being in the mountains again really helped me to clear my mind,” Christine says, and after a few months she built up enough courage to start again from scratch, and to do something with her life.  

She was fortunate to get a job in Carrick-Macross, in Ireland’s County Monaghan; this involved opportunities for working ‘front of house’, where she gradually began to learn English too.  Having mastered the basics of her third language, she was able to accept a post in Windermere, again in catering, with the Lake District reminding her in many ways of her beloved Switzerland. 

Windermere was followed by a move to Kent, to work in an Italian Restaurant, where she was again at home amongst fellow outsiders - the owner and all the staff were either Italian or hailed from some other foreign shore.  Then on to Stroud, where she truly felt that she did not belong!   And thence finally to London, where outsiders seemed to be in the majority, coexisting and living in relative harmony. 

Christine has now lived in London for over nine years and works in a highly regarded, Michelin-starred restaurant in the city’s leafy West.  She has recently developed a passion for photography and, in her spare time, is undertaking relevant courses in the hope of being able to take this passion further.

For Christine, being an outsider has been profoundly traumatic in more ways than one.  Being labelled an illegal immigrant in Switzerland not only caused havoc to her professional career but also caused deep hurt to her personally.  “It felt,” she says, “as if part of my life had been excised for ever;  looking back on it fills me with sadness even now.” Christine adds that being an outsider anywhere has direct economic consequences too, with foreigners working for longer hours and less money, with their previous qualifications and skills often neither recognised nor valued.

The main advantage, in Christine’s opinion, of having survived the experience of being on the outside is that it has made her stronger - for most people, changing jobs, countries and languages would have been more traumatic than it has been for her.

“If given the choice not to be outsider? I am not to sure about that. In all honestly, I would probably prefer not to be one but only if I could retain the individuality it has brought - I quite like to be different.  France is my country of birth, it is my home, yet when I return there, I feel a strange need to conform and that makes me uncomfortable;  I feel I cannot be myself.   In London, I can.”

Interview Date: 11th May 2013

Updated:  5th June 2013

PEDRO GONZALES (#06)

Political Asylum

Some changes have been made to protect the sitter’s identity.

Age: 45

Born in Cartagena, Colombia

Father & Mother both born in Colombia

Ethnic heritage / Father: Mixed (Spanish & Black) / Mother: Spanish

Photography: London, 18th May 2013

Though a Colombian public official and not a politician, Pedro was not immune from the widespread atrocities committed against trade unionists, political activists, potential local civilian leaders, and anyone who got in the way of the guerrilla groups:  because of his involvement in the development of social strategies, he was targeted by the opposition and survived two murder attempts.   While the wealthy and the leading politicians had cordons of personal security, this luxury was not available to Pedro and, following the third attempt on his life, he knew that he had no choice other than to become an expatriate, to flee the political turmoil of Colombia, his motherland, and to seek asylum in the UK.   Now he devotes his life to helping others in need, here in London.

PEDRO’S STORY

Born and raised in Cartagena, Colombia, Pedro attended local primary and secondary schools, following which, he went on to the University of Bogotá, studying public administration.

After this region of Latin America gained independence from Spain in 1819, the country went through some turbulent, formative years, with the Republic of Colombia being finally declared in 1886 (though Panama was still to secede, in 1903).    The new Republic was turbulent from the very outset:  clashes between the two main political parties - the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party - often engendered violent divisions in the state, culminating in a period of intense conflict in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, known as La Violencia.  From 1953 to 1964, the worst levels of violence declined and just before Pedro’s birth, in 1968, the two main parties formed the National Front, a coalition through which they governed the country jointly.   However, despite far-reaching and often desirable social and economic reforms, a number of anti-government guerrilla groups began to coalesce, including the notorious FARC and the National Liberation Army (ENL).

As a young professional, Pedro witnessed the introduction of the new Colombian Constitution of 1991 which guaranteed freedom of religious worship, gender equality, freedom of expression, and many other fundamental human rights.   Having joined the public service in 1988, it was in this positive climate that Pedro was able to prove himself a talented young man whose professional reputation as a promising strategist grew amongst the political elite.   This is not to say that, in the interim, the belligertent guerrilla groups had gone away;  indeed, the conflicts they created periodically claimed many lives.  

New paramilitary forces and ‘social cleansing groups’ continued to grow, often with links to local and national security forces, not to mention some local officials and politicians.   Widespread atrocities were committed against trade unionists, political activists, potential local civilian leaders, and indeed anyone who got in the way.   The narcotics trade was also exerting influence over a number of politicians and the effects of this infiltration of government stretched further and wider, exacerbating the social conflict in the country.

Even though he was a public official and not a politician, Pedro was not immune:  because of his involvement in the development of social strategies, he was targeted by the opposition and survived two murder attempts.   While the wealthy, the powerful and the leading politicians surrounded themselves with cordons of personal security, this luxury was not available to Pedro.   Following the third attempt on his life, he knew that he had no choice other than to leave Colombia and to become an expatriate.  

After a joyful childhood and some productive and constructive years as a young professional, life in Colombia had turned nasty for Pedro, forcing him to leave his homeland and to start a new life in a foreign country, to master a new language, and to adjust to a rather different way of life.   This was a major trauma.

Having successfully sought asylum in Britain, Pedro has now lived here in peace for over 14 years, but because his family have remained behind, he only undertook to take part in this project on the condition that his face should be rendered unidentifiable and with the critical details of his biography disguised.  

In Britain, Pedro feels free and unthreatened.   He loves life in London and he loves the amazing diversity here, of people and of traditions.   London has become his new home and while Colombia will always be a part of him, it is now very much a part of something from the past. 

Pedro has obtained further university qualifications here in London and he now works within the field of social services, providing professional, legal and social assistance to those in need.

No-one wants to experience a threat upon his or her life and Pedro regrets how the attempts on his own life turned him into an outsider, an émigré.   However, after 14 years in London, this country has become home to him;  he is very happy here, now a British Citizen, and has become reconciled to what life has brought him.

Interview Date: 18th May 2013

Updated:  4th June 2013

BENEDICT IGHOTU AGBAIMONI (#07)

Racial Discrimination

Age: 48

Born in London, England

Father & Mother both born in Nigeria

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Urhobo

Photography: London, 19th May 2013

Growing up as a black youngster in Camberwell was difficult:  some of the racism was very much ‘in your face’, some of it was more subtle but no less hurtful.   Benedict grew up in London clearly as an outsider.   He returned to Nigeria with his parents, when he was a teenager but, unable to speak Urhobo or Yoruba, and having brought with him the attitudes of a typical London youngster, he stood out there too, of course, an outsider yet again.   Because of his habits, values and attitudes, not to mention his expectations, even when he used the local pidgin English, he was seen as a European first and a Nigerian second.   Back in London once more, Benedict feels that this is where his home is, the place where he belongs.

BENEDICT’S STORY

Born in Camberwell to Nigerian Parents – his father had come to Britain primarily to study but had always intended to return home and his mother had come  to work - Ben went to the local primary school, John Ruskin, and then on to secondary school in Lambeth North.   Some years later, with Ben a little over 16, it was decided that most of the family would go back to Nigeria.  

After so many years away, Ben’s parents seemed to have formed a somewhat romantic view of life ‘back home’ and for him, the reality proved to be something else entirely.   For a young man who was, to all intents and purposes, a city-dweller, a Londoner, arriving to the land of his parents’ dreams proved a terrible shock - he had never been to Nigeria previously, not even for a holiday.   He found the infrastructure to be completely different and in some parts rudimentary - some of the shops were no more than sheds made out of sheets of corrugated iron - and the environment was full of contrasts.   “I was shaken to the very core,” says Ben.  

He lived with his family in Lagos for five years, until his father’s tragic and untimely death in a traffic accident.   He had decided to retake some O Levels.   Some of his daily interactions were a major challenge, given that he did not speak Urhobo or Yoruba.   How did he fit in to the land of his fathers?   “I sort of coped”, Ben says, “with days when I wished that I was not there but with others when I enjoyed the way of life;  it seemed much more laid back.”   He went on to do a teacher training degree at what was then called the College of Education, Abraka, a college affiliated to the University of Benin, and obtained a degree-level teaching qualification in Fine and Applied Art from Bendel State University.   His first teaching post was in a federal school in a different part of Nigeria, which he found an enriching experience as he had the opportunity to teach youngsters who came from all over Nigeria.  

Then, at the age of 26, Ben decided to return to London, the place where he was born.   “English was my first language,” Ben observes, “and I thought that if I returned to London, I could fit in better there - after all, that’s where I spent my childhood.   Of course, 10 years had elapsed and it was fascinating to observe the changes (particularly technological) that had taken place during my time in Nigeria.   Even the money looked different!   So, once more, I had to try to adjust and to establish a new home, though I was still questioning where I thought my home actually was.   (I seemed to be at home both in London and in Nigeria, yet at the same time I felt like an outsider in both places.)   On balance, I felt more in tune with the place where I had been born and had spent my formative years;  I thought I understood what made London tick.   Though somewhat changed, London was familiar and I could still relate to many of the things around me, connect to the system, and feel comfortable.   I got married;  I have two sons and a step daughter;  and I now teach at the Early Years Children’s Centre in Bloomsbury.”

Growing up as a black boy and youth in Camberwell was not without its difficulties.   While some of the racism and discrimination was very much “in your face”, some of it was more subtle but no less deeply hurtful for that.   “Yes, I grew up in London clearly as an outsider.   If not being picked on, I sometimes seemed to be almost invisible, deliberately overlooked and ignored by the majority.   At that stage, Nigerians and other black people were still a small minority in my part of London, though being black clearly made us a very visible minority.”

“Having arrived with my parents to Nigeria when I was a teenager, without being able to speak Urhobo or Yoruba, and having brought with me the attitudes of a typical London teenager, I stood out there too, of course, an outsider once again, but this time in the mother country of my parents.   Gradually, I learned to speak a sort of local pidgin English, a derivative of spoken English blended with some local colloquialisms.   Even then I was perceived by others first as a European, because of my habits, values and attitudes, not to mention my expectations, and only second as a Nigerian, or should I say an Urhobo.” 

When asked about the perceived disadvantages of being an outsider, Ben says:  “Well, being  black proved to be a significant hindrance during my early years in London but not speaking one of the native languages of Nigeria meant that life there was not all that simple either.   I am now heading towards 50 and have learned to ignore racial prejudice or to challenge it when needed but I can’t help noticing, even now, that when I travel on a crowded bus, the last seat to remain vacant is always the seat next to me.   It is all very subtle but it still happens, even in multicultural London.   And recently, on a family visit to the Lake district, I couldn’t help but notice that people would still stop and stare.   For me personally, the main disadvantage of being an outsider is the feeling of being excluded.”

“On the other hand,” says Ben, “being an outsider enables you to see the world around you from two different viewpoints, to have two perspectives on the same thing.   Having lived in Nigeria, I have learned that different systems and different ways of living can produce an equally good quality of life.  

Being an outsider has taught me to be more tolerant of others, and their ways of doing things, and has given me the awareness that lots of things don’t really matter that much;  it has given me strength, perhaps even wisdom.   Having lived only 10 years in Nigeria, I returned back enriched;  I had learned to recognise the many similarities between ‘outsiders’ and ‘us’.”

If given the choice not to be an outsider, Benedict says he would refuse:  “I wouldn’t then be the person I am now,” he says.   “Being an outsider has helped me to understand who I really am;  otherwise, I fear that I might have been quite narrow-minded, less tolerant, even arrogant perhaps.”