Wasted, weary and wary: The ‘wildlife’ of Shoreditch

“The satire just staggers up the street,” says Dougie Wallace of his latest collection documenting the revellers and the casualties, the trendsetters and the fashion victims, and other assorted human wildlife stalking the concrete jungle of Shoreditch.

'Shoreditch Wildlife' captures diversity and contradictions on the streets of East London [Photo courtesy Dougie Wallace]

‘Shoreditch Wildlife’ captures diversity and contradictions on the streets of East London [Photo courtesy Dougie Wallace]

The East London neighbourhood has long been synonymous with hedonistic nightlife, gritty urban authenticity and hipster colonisation.

The Scottish photographer, who specialises in expressive social documentary, arrived there from Glasgow 15 years ago and has been on safari at the parties and on the streets ever since.

“Living the Shoreditch life has helped me develop an eye for the hilarious, messy side of human uninhibited behaviour,” he explains on his website.

Wallace’s hyper-real portraits of the wasted, the weary and the wary mix comedy, exuberance and pathos, often in the same image as inhabitants of overlapping and diverse London worlds rub up against each other within the width of a camera lens.

Afternoon pub drinkers slump into their seats under the stern gaze of a reproachful nurse whose portrait hangs on the wall. A man drops his pants in a park, showing casual disregard for the police car passing a few feet away.

Wallace describes himself as a “participant rather than a voyeur” in the mayhem, admitting that the exact circumstances behind some of the photos remain hazy.

“You can see that I was having fun. Like everyone else, I was in there partying from Thursday through to Monday,” he says. “You couldn’t just fly in if you were the top photographer in the world and say, ‘Right, I’m going to document Shoreditch’. You wouldn’t get the pictures. You’ve just got to be there.”

Wallace likens his shooting style to boxing — “sparring, ducking and weaving to get the angles, to catch the expressions and emotions, right in their faces” — and has the wiry build of a flyweight fighter to carry it off.

“I provoke it. I’ve got two flashguns so there’s no invisibility. I’m not scared to make them come to the camera and a lot of the photos are reactions to me. I’m not one of those street photographers who are like, ‘I’m a photographic ninja and you can’t see me’.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s when the art happens. It’s how they react, it’s whether the flash hits them in a certain way, or if there’s a bit of movement.”

Brought together in a book, “Shoreditch Wildlife”, to be published later this month, Wallace’s photos chronicle an area in an accelerated state of transition, from its days as the millennial epicentre of the East London clubbing scene through waves of regeneration and gentrification that draw weekend crowds to its bustling street markets, designer boutiques and galleries but have tamed its wilder instincts.

“It may be that Shoreditch is a wee bit over. It’s not the counter-culture anymore,” he admits. “It was great back then, but if it had just stayed the same you’d be really bored. Shoreditch has always morphed itself into different things. It is what it is.”

This article was originally published by the CNN Photos Blog on 16 October, 2014.