Roy Mehta took this photograph of a barbershop in Harlesden, north-west London, in 1991. He was an art student at the time, and the picture was one of thousands of images he took in the borough of Brent, where he grew up. Brent was the most multicultural district of any city in Europe, but Mehta understood it more as a single community. His father had a one-man GP practice in Harlesden for many years and as a kid Mehta would sit after school in the waiting room, already intrigued by the faces.
In the 30 years of his photography career since then, he’d hardly looked at those formative pictures – he had boxes of negatives that he had never printed. When Brent was nominated as borough of culture for 2020, however, Mehta was invited to put together images from that archive for an exhibition and book. He had originally taken the pictures in houses, churches, shops and on the street, wandering with his portrait camera, knocking on doors, or sometimes trailing around with a Catholic priest as he did his house calls. In that pre-internet era, once it had been established he wasn’t from the Inland Revenue, people were happy, as here, for him to stand in a corner and snap away.
The images focus on connection, reflecting life as it felt and still feels to Mehta. He says: “That’s the reality of London, isn’t it? I don’t want to sound naive or anything but, contrary to what you read in newspapers, it’s lots of different people getting on with each other. In that way it’s sort of my love letter to Brent.”
He hopes, when the pictures finally go on display next year, and when people see the book, that some of those featured will get in touch, “whether they see themselves or a grandparent or an aunt or whatever”, and he can return and take pictures again – and see how things developed.