London’s crime scenes: murder in the city | Blake Morrison

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We think of murder scenes as grisly, haunting places, but then the flowers fade and life moves on. Blake Morrison introduces photographer Antonio Olmos’s project to document London’s crime scenes

Back in the 1930s and 40s, the New York photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) specialised in taking shots of crime scenes. Using a police-band shortwave radio, he’d get early reports of stabbings and shootings, and would sometimes arrive ahead of the emergency services. Blood on the sidewalk, bodies under blankets, handcuffed suspects and gawping bystanders – these were his signature.

Antonio Olmos doesn’t see himself as a modern-day Weegee. Born in Mexico, he has worked as a photojournalist in central America, Africa and the Middle East, with war and human rights as his speciality. But on 1 January 2011, a young Czech woman was murdered by her boyfriend just a few streets from where Olmos lives in north London, his home since 1994. Intrigued, he sought out the house where she’d been stabbed to death. It looked just like his own – an ordinary semi. And that got him wondering about murder sites in general: was there anything that marked them out? Did they always look this ordinary? What characterises the landscape of murder?

For the next two years, whenever he learned about a killing in the London area (the outer perimeter being the M25), he got himself to the place where it happened. Unlike Weegee, he didn’t rush. Shots of blood-stained corpses weren’t his objective; nor did he want to intrude. Usually, he waited several days before turning up with his camera and tripod. And if there were people around, he made a point of asking permission.

In a few of his photos, the police are still investigating. One image shows a forensics expert in a white suit crawling across the grass outside a block of flats in Clapham where an 18-year-old was shot dead trying to break in. In another, taken in a tree-lined street in Cricklewood, a tent has been set up between parked cars outside the house where Sashana Roberts was stabbed to death by her former partner. Usually, though, the police tape sealing off the site has been removed or reduced to shreds, and the site has been re-appropriated by the local community.

How a community reacts to a killing depends on the circumstances. The younger the victim, the bigger the floral tributes; the greater the anger, too – “Give Yourself Up, You Coward,” one scrawled message reads. There’s a striking shot by Olmos of a group of teenagers in Edmonton, lining the garden wall of the house outside which 15-year-old Negus McLean is said to have been hunted down by a gang, beaten with poles and stabbed to death. There are 12 of them, like Christ’s disciples; they may have been crying earlier, but now they are talking, texting, keeping vigil.

For a few days, violence leaves its bloody print. Then the crowds disperse, the flowers fade and only a few remember. When Olmos stood on a corner in Dollis Hill in May last year, the flowers, flags and messages left for Luke Fitzpatrick, stabbed to death after an altercation in a bar during the Champions League final, took up nearly the whole of the pavement. But time passes, and local councils send in the refuse collectors. Only very occasionally does a building bear the marks of what happened inside. One Olmos photo shows a bird flying in the sky above a tower block in Deptford, the top storey charred by a fire in which two people died – a fire started by a 50-year-old woman after a dispute over her rent arrears. For the rest, the walls keep a blank face and the canals where bodies have been dumped resume a calm surface.

In some cases, Olmos’s images suggest, murder barely registers in the first place. Two cellophane bunches are all that mark the address where 17-year-old Cheryl Tariah was strangled by her boyfriend, in a flat above the Buy Labels For Less store in Barkingside. Life goes on.

People have enough troubles of their own to cope with without mourning the deaths of strangers. “After great pain/a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Olmos captures that formality or numbness – and the indifference and alienation. Only one woman among the crowd crossing the road in Mile End seems to have seen the flowers pinned to the railings in memory of 23-year-old Kelvin Easton, stabbed to death at the Boheme nightclub. If the others don’t want to see, who can blame them?

Among the killings that fell within the span of Olmos’s project, two were big news at the time: that of Gemma McCluskie, the EastEnders actress dismembered by her brother in Hackney last March; and Tia Sharp, the 12-year-old found dead in her grandmother’s home a week after the family reported her missing. Others ring a vague bell – the man shot dead by looters during the riots of August 2011; the Wales supporter attacked outside Wembley stadium on the night of the Euro 2012 qualifying match with England. But some figured only as statistics. Even the most horrific murders can go unrecorded. Who remembers Rolls and Regina Say, aged 10 and eight, whose father slit their throats in order to spite his estranged wife? Olmos’s image of the murder site shows their photographs and some flowers next to a dry riser inlet in a sepulchral hallway – a monstrous crime discreetly mourned.

What do we learn? That many of those who die violently, as their surnames suggest, come from ethnic minorities: Svolkinas, Alagaratnam, Darko-Frempong, Chaudhary, Ssali. That most of the men are young and the victims of knife crime. That most of the women are killed by their partners or ex-partners. That central and west London are where murders least occur, whereas farther out, to the south and east, they happen more often, with Croydon seemingly the black spot.

The project covers only a select number of cases and its very focus risks exacerbating fear and paranoia, when in reality, as Olmos points out, London currently has a very low murder rate. What’s undeniable, though, is that it’s highest in poor areas, where overcrowding, stress, drugs, alcohol and turf wars are more prevalent. Given that the poverty in those areas will now increase, as government cuts kick in, the worry is that the murder rates will increase, too. In folklore and ghost stories, and in plays and films from Shakespeare’s Macbeth through to Hitchcock’s Psycho, murder sites are spooky places, the haunt of poltergeists and ghosts. These photographs dispel that superstition. They tell of wasted lives, but they don’t present a wasteland. Murder has never looked so pointless. Nor so familiar and banal. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

via Art and design: Photography | Blake Morrison, Antonio Olmos Thanks for reading Jay


About jayclappphotography

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Posted on April 19, 2013, in Photography News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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