Smoke & Mirrors: Images in response to Grenfell

Silent walks: each month on the 14th, hundreds walk silently through the streets around Grenfell Tower. The monthly commemoration has been brought online during the Covid-19 pandemic. Image © Steve Mepsted

Steve Mepsted is an artist and photographer, and Programme Manager for Digital Media, Photography & Film at Morley. A North Kensington resident, he is currently working on a project entitled ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, photographing the aftermath and events surrounding the Grenfell Tower disaster of June 14th 2017.

In 2017 on June 14th, I watched from my living room window all night as this tragedy happened. My daughter woke me in the middle of the night saying “are you ok?” I saw fire leaping from one floor to the next like a horse. It’s seared onto my brain. 

It’s deeply affected me, and the whole area. It’s been a real symbolic marker of North Kensington, which is the biggest concentration of people in terms of density, the largest amount of languages spoken in any London borough, but in terms of physical footprint the smallest London borough. Historically it’s a huge boiling pot for London.

Circled polaroids. Image © Steve Mepsted

Grenfell went deeper than sadness, but it inspired me. My background is in documentary and photojournalism, and so I had no choice. It took me a while to get started- I had to absorb everything; the grief. I’ve gone down a route which has brought me back to my original fine art practice, which is a little bit more elliptical and a little bit more abstracted, because it’s very sensitive. I don’t want to shove microphones and cameras in the faces of victims and families.

I’m burying negatives in the soil at the foot of the tower, and working with found surfaces such as evidence tags, polaroid photography, which I’m then intervening on the top of, collecting objects of memory from the bottom of the tower and photographing them in my studio. Bits of writing that I’ve collected off the walls, collaborations with musicians to build an instrumental soundtrack, slideshows materials to project onto the walls of the Westway. It’s consumed me for a while.

72 memorial candles found discarded at the bottom of Grenfell Tower. Image © Steve Mepsted

The silent walks are so powerful. They’re incredibly moving, because that silence speaks volumes. The fire brigade always join us, which is incredibly moving. I really believe that kind of communal activity is healing and strengthening for the whole area, after that trauma. I’m glad we can still come together online during this strange time. 

There’s a sense of needing a space for art and cultural activity since Grenfell. People want to express themselves, and I believe that one of the best ways to do it is through some positive creative action, finding a way to share and heal. The area has always been a vibrant, artistic, cultural place. It feels right.

Soil and petals on a weighing scale. Image © Steve Mepsted

Steve’s exhibition at the Tabernacle has been postponed while we are in lockdown, but you can see more of his work on this project on his website: