VIDEO: Watch how George Georgiou made Last Stop, his study of London's streets from the serendipitous perspective of the buses he rode as a teenager
A battered old hatchback rolls up outside Folkestone Station, and George Georgiou – with a shy, blokey smile – leans over to pop the passenger door, before driving me through the seaside town he now calls home.
He sits in the driver’s seat as if he were in his armchair at home; for a long time, this car was the closest thing he had to a home. He has driven all over the world in it with his wife, the photographer Vanessa Winship, covering thousands upon thousands of miles, from London to Georgia, then Ukraine, Turkey, Italy, and finally America. It has been a long journey, solely motivated by photography.
“Welcome to my hotel,” he says in that distinctive North London accent. “It’s a bit like The Shining.” On the edges of the town, Georgiou leads me up the steps and into the heart of a grand, faded old building. It was indeed once a hotel, and the patterned carpets and ornate banisters remain. Now it’s private flats, home to the town’s old timers and young couples settling from London and still enduring the commute. Georgiou has lived here with Winship for the last two years, travelling to London to work, piece by piece, on his homecoming project, a remarkable look at a capital in a profound state of flux, taken from the uncontrolled and serendipitous perspective of the buses he rode as a teenager.
The project is titled Last Stop, a tribute, he says, to a city he still calls home but which he hardly recognised when he got back from his travels. “The economy boomed, and then broke, and then boomed again,” he says. “The wealth gap increased. Somehow, all this diversity found a way to co-exist.”
The son of Greek Cypriots, Georgiou grew up in London during the 1970s but found the city almost unrecognisable after a decade away. “History had transpired to make it the most international place on earth,” he says. “I was amazed at how the city had opened up to people who, before, never had a connection to Britain. I thought it was fascinating and positive, seeing so many different people living together, and somehow mostly making it work.”
Embracing “the challenge of not having full control”, he caught a train to London every week, boarded a random double-decker bus and, from that vantage point, captured the city’s ebb and flow. Taking whatever seat was free, he would use the viewfinder on his camera, meaning his subjects were often oblivious to him.
“I would see tiny scenes that could be from a soap opera, and would find myself making up the narrative,” he says. An old woman exchanges something with two tough-looking guys in Peckham, an argument in a restaurant in Notting Hill, a homeless man awakes on the wet streets of zone one, young children chase each other in the cramped grounds of a suburban council estate. “I don’t know who they are, but a dynamic, an open-ended narrative, is taking place,” he says.
The upper and lower decks each provide their own perspective; downstairs he was within inches of his subjects – “so close, I could almost touch them”. Upstairs, a broader view of the city unfurled itself. He photographed the way buildings, streets, activities and proximities change from one borough to the next, adapting – or in some cases failing to adapt – to such a vast movement of people.
Some of his subjects are close together, others are alone. Some are engaged, feeding off the crowd. Others seem alienated, cowed by a sense of insignificance. “From this vantage point I was able to capture the complex phenomenon of urban stratification,” he says. “How different people use the city through the day, how new layers of architecture, signage and street furniture add to what was already there. How different social, economic and ethnic groups appropriate, shape and adapt to the city.”
Georgiou wanted the printed book to reflect the way he’d made the images, and devised a connected reel of images echoing the experience of staring out of a bus window. Presented in a concertina, they can be viewed in any order, allowing the reader to create his or her own sequence within the overall structure he’s created. The result was published with the help of £8000 raised via Kickstarter.
The sun drops below the sea line, and I must make my way back to London; on the drive back to the station, I ask if he misses living in the midst of the city.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “It’s nice to be a bit more settled here, but I go stir crazy if I spend too long in Folkestone. I’ve felt like that about a lot of places, but never London. However much it has changed, it will always be my home.”
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