Living in a chaotic and hard working city like London, we tend to take for granted the unity that holds such a gloriously diverse capital together. The contemporary world has brought closer a wide range of people onto this tiny island; and often I find myself saying: “What a small world!” The ethnologist, Johann G. Herder, stated that nations are the embodiments of unique sets of cultural characteristics. Their qualities have been shaped by their ancestor’s history, environment, and mental construction of their world through language, and law. Each person has individual differences but shares cultural traits. As a photojournalist, I searched London’s streets for examples of cultural unity. Along the way however, my story changed. I realised that whilst London may be extremely diverse, there is shockingly little intermixing of cultural traditions. What I found was a city engorged in pub culture and lacking in courtesy to strangers.
The United Kingdom is an amalgamation of nations, and London, like Paris and New York City, is a culture capital of the world. In the mid-nineteenth century, London already had an established Jewish, Black and South Asian population. As a consequence of the World Wars, it also became a home to refugees from war-torn Europe. As a result, London has progressed as a multi-cultural city that today speaks over three hundred different languages. The demand of acceptance and tolerance of others inevitably increased ethnic nationalism and hostility. Samuel P. Huntington described these antagonisms as the “clashes of civilisation.” As an aspiring anthropologist, he completely overlooked the aspect of individual behaviour. London has eternally been criticised for its pub culture and social behaviour. Nevertheless, peace is found between groups of culturally, religiously, and nationally diverse individuals. Culture is an attribute to society that provides a collective identity greater than nationality and religion. As argued by Franz Boas, in his theory of Cultural Relativism, the cultural conditioning of behaviour is ultimately accomplished through habituation; acts of the unconscious rather than rational deliberation. We are creatures of emotion. What we do, our actions, tales, and what comes back to us, all reflect what our lives represent. Our natural empathy for others, our desires to laugh and make others smile is an inherent human trait.
The “father of American psychology”, William James, wrote that “Man, biologically considered, and whatever else he may be in the bargain, is simply the most formidable of all the beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.” Greed, violence, and selfish intent, has made those suffering, whom are entitled to equal human rights, invisible to many of us. Unwilling nations have been thrown into illegal wars, populations turned numb by biased newsmongers, and millions of individuals swallowed by materialism. Whilst we have embraced the incredible advancements in technology, we have turned a blind eye to our Earth, our humanity, and our own physical, mental and spiritual well-being.
Put aside the world’s flaky foreign policies, imperialistic mindsets, religious outbursts, the boundaries that come with borders, and what do you have left? Humanity. Humanity is at the base of cultural diversity. It is the foundation to all the colourful combinations of culture, art, science, knowledge, and Enlightenment. We cannot afford to forget that. After centuries of cultural mingling, London is finally proud to announce that it has reached the stage where it’s different ethnic groups are assimilating. At the very least, they are cooperating. I expected more.
The theory of Cultural Relativism states that, “All cultures are equally developed according to their own priorities, and values. None is better or more advanced or less primitive than the other.” They are systems of shared beliefs, values, traditions, behaviours and artefacts. They are simply different to each other, unique in their own way. Culture has not failed in its ancient transmission of acquired conceptions of what is right and wrong, or of life. We, humanity, be it on a personal or collective scale, have failed to develop, learn, share and perpetuate our knowledge.
Seeing London’s people stride on with modern-day vigour has actually made me sad. Our cosmopolitan capital is victim to its own materialistic gods. There seems to be no time to acknowledge the street fundraisers who chug on until they have made the world a better place. Our gratitude for what we have seems to be diminishing. Our lack of appreciation is most obvious in our lack of thanks to those who keep London alive and clean, who build and who water it. When was the last time you said “Thank-you” to a street cleaner? Or said “Good job!” to a construction worker? The most unifying traits in society are based on courtesy. Politicians and governments tend to defend their support for culture in purely economic terms. They encourage the idea that culture can be used to increase economic stability through tourism and, at the moment, the Olympic Games. Culture is much more profound than a tool used by society to increase material welfare. It enriches our lives enormously.
I hope the photographs that I took provide a window into the myriad of cultures that make up London. A glimpse at how they interact on a daily basis. The contrasting elements of the subjects are all in play, and it is easy to see where cultural understanding and racial acceptance have developed; and where there is room for change. Positive change can come in all shapes and sizes: From the most dramatic and long-term initiatives, to the simplest and quietest random acts of kindness. Governments worldwide need to raise awareness of civil behaviour. We need to care for each other more. In the Economist, an article entitled How broken is Britain? said that, “self-destructive behaviour today in part reflects the perception that our lives are not worth much.” Valuing culture and paying more attention to how we interact with one another, will fortify our society. Britain is not broken; it is struggling with the fact that it lives in a cosmopolitan world, and London is paying the price: moral bankruptcy.
Man is the only animal that laughs and cries; for he is the only one that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.
– William Hazlitt.
The rest of the pictures can be found on the Photojournalism page.