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Pål Hansen: a portrait of the Windrush generation

Image-maker renowned for portraiture of public figures from Penelope Cruz to Sir Elton John unveils personal work

Pål Hansen's photography has made the cover of TIME, Guardian Weekend, Observer Magazine and The Sunday Times Magazine. His sitters have included everyone from actors Nicole Kidman and Cillian Murphy to hip hop artist and producer Kanye West

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But the thrill of gaining recognition for his celebrity portraiture, he says, can’t match the satisfaction of exhibiting personal work that gives a voice to the Windrush Generation. 

The photographer, who moved to the UK from his native Norway in 1996, is showing his project Windrush – Leave to Remain? in Britain for the first time. What’s more, the series of portraits is being exhibited at the heart of the community whose story he is telling, in the gallery space of the charity Windrush Generation Legacy Association in Croydon.  

Hansen made his portraits of people affected by the Windrush scandal using a 5x4 large format analogue camera. After processing, the film was buried in British soil, where it was eroded and marked – a metaphorical representation of the scars left by the experiences of his subjects. 

The Windrush Generation are named after the boat that brought the first of thousands of people to the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971. Workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands had travelled to the UK to fill post-war labour shortages. Lots more of the Windrush immigrants were children.

In 2018, many people from the Windrush Generation were wrongly classed as illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation due to a lack of official documents. Hansen was deeply affected by the plight of the Windrush victims, recognising the difference between his own experience of immigration and theirs.

Speaking as the exhibition is launched on Windrush Day, Hansen explains why he created the project.

What inspired the exhibition Windrush – Leave to Remain? 

For me the story transcends the understanding of just one culture, race or type of individual. I may not have personally experienced such rejection or wrongdoing, but the way the Windrush Generation have been treated is disgusting.

It is wrong for any country and culture to treat its citizens, a section of its own people, like this. I came to the UK in 1996. I came here thinking that the UK was the closest thing to a country where cultures were able to function and live together in harmony. Yes I admit I was maybe a little naive but I came from a place that has little international influence. I came to Britain in the hope that I was going to be a part of a melting pot of cultures that worked. I have along the way realised the UK is far from perfect in this aspect, but this story of the Windrush scandal was for me the tipping point. This was the point where I felt like I had been betrayed. I wanted to live in harmony with the people around me. I thrive from seeing and living around people with different cultures and experiences. This is for me what makes the world interesting and I feel that we should cherish this.

The Windrush scandal may not affect me directly and I cannot claim it has. However, I do feel I can use my voice, and I am in a privileged position to be able to create something that can reach a big audience and tell the story of this wrongdoing to stand up for what’s right.  

You are best recognised for your editorial work and portraits of public figures. Why the shift in gear? 

My personal work has always dealt with social issues. I have often worked with minority groups to help tell their story. Sometimes it is hard for groups on the margin of society to have a voice. I have covered stories about people affected by [everything from] the foot and mouth crisis to teenage parenthood through portraits and quotes.

One of the reasons I love photography is the variety. I love the challenge of photographing celebrities. However, personal projects allow me to be more experimental with my work, spend more time with the sitters and tell a deeper story than a 30-minute celebrity commission would do.  

This develops me as a photographer and storyteller … it makes my commercial work better and keeps me moving forward as a creative person.

Will your exhibition change anything, and if so, what? 

It will finally be seen in the UK as I meant for it to be seen, on a gallery wall large, imposing portraits. I had a great article in the Observer magazine, but it was always meant to be an exhibition.

The work was shown as a solo exhibition in Oslo Gallery, Norway, and was well received. However, now it will be seen by people who are more familiar with the story, and hopefully people whom have been affected and can relate to the many stories. 

All images from the series Windrush – Leave to Remain by Pål Hansen 

The exhibition Windrush – Leave to Remain? by Pål Hansen is at the Windrush Generation Legacy Association, Whitgift Centre, Croydon, until July 31 

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