I first saw this photograph in Hackney Museum a few years ago, and it was one of those images – and with my visual memory, there aren’t too many – that stayed with me. I didn’t note down the name of the photographer, and so it seemed destined to be one of those things you fall in love with but never come across again.
Until I read an article in the Guardian late last year, where the artist Tom Hunter talks about how the image came about. He was living in a squat in Hackney and spent a whole day with the woman in the picture, his friend Filipa, trying to get the perfect shot. She had been sent a possesssion order by the council, and the image is inspired by Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by Vermeer – another artist who depicted ordinary people.
As he explains in the article, he wanted to ‘take a picture showing the dignity of squatter life – a piece of propaganda to save my neighbourhood’. You can read the full article here.
I remember reading photography guidelines for an Observer competition and it specifically stated ‘no shopping trollies dumped in ponds’, while the submission guidelines of the literary magazine Ambit categorically rejects ‘I’ve-got-no-money ‘bed-sitter’ poems and also advises writers to avoid’ shards’, ‘abysses’ and ‘iridescence’ – or, more simply, cliches.
And I think it is Hunter’s deliberate refusal of a cliched representation of homelessness that makes this picture special – you have these rich colours and beautiful light and the classic mother-and-child pairing, so in many ways it’s a celebratory, almost reverent image. It would be too easy to take depressing photos of a woman in a squat, whereas this photo is so beautiful that you can feel the photographer’s respect and empathy for the subject, and feel it yourself as a viewer.