Blog > 100 years since Charles Booth. An interview with Keith Greenough

100 years since Charles Booth. An interview with Keith Greenough


‘East London lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures’ – Charles Booth 1889

Keith Greenough will be lifting the curtain on poverty in East London this November at Oxford House. Expounding on the celebrated work of 19th century social reformer Charles Booth, Greenough presents this collection of photography, film and statistical analysis in collaboration with New Policy Institute and Oxford House. A chance to raise awareness and celebrate the centenary of Charles Booth’s death, the exhibition will bring Oxford House and its visitors face to face with poverty in our own communities. We caught up with Keith to speak more about the event.


How did you approach your photography for this exhibition?
The exhibition contains work from two different series of photographs: Lifting the Curtain and PhotoBooth. For Lifting the Curtain my starting point was Charles Booth’s survey, Life and Labour of the People. I extracted texts from this which raised interesting questions on social issues and referred to specific places in East London. I revisited these places and photographed the scenes as they are today. The images are presented alongside the corresponding Booth texts. The photographs were taken at times of day when nobody was around – late at night and early morning. My hope was that without the distraction of modern day people in the scene, the viewer will take the text and perhaps project it into the image. The viewer is invited to compare the past (the text) and the present (the image) and to think about what has or has not changed.

Where did the NPI come into things?
John [Ryan, of Oxford House] brought in the New Policy Institute who produces social and economic surveys, and they’re based in Oxford House. He asked them if they might do a piece of work to look at comparative statistics of poverty, housing, work and diversity then [in Booth’s day] and now. We have a series of display panels which will show that information, and those will be interspersed with my photographs. Our hope is that this will inform the way in which people engage with the other exhibits.

Could you tell us more about the PhotoBooth aspect of the exhibition?
PhotoBooth is a form of vox pop. We wanted to get a modern day view on the social issues that Booth raised over 100 years ago. I conducted 15 video interviews in which the interviewees were asked their views on how things have changed over the last 100 years. These took place in the old Chapel at the top floor of Oxford House. All the participants are associated with Oxford House in some way or other. The final presentation is an edited video compilation of the interviews and a series of portraits.

Could you explain the different components of the exhibition?
What we are trying to do is to encourage questioning and debate about what social changes have taken place in the 100 years since Booth’s death. The three components: Lifting the Curtain, the social survey work from NPI, and PhotoBooth each do this but in different ways.

Why Oxford House?
Oxford House is mentioned positively within Booth’s book. In particular, he felt that the University Club run by Oxford House was one of the best examples of this kind of initiative. Booth also chose Oxford House as one of two venues (along with Toynbee Hall) as places to display his poverty maps for the first time in 1889. There are strong links between Booth and Oxford House, so it is appropriate that we hold the exhibition here.

What is your aim with this exhibition?
Certainly we’re aiming to celebrate Charles Booth’s work which was a forerunner of modern social research. But we are also aiming to highlight social issues and to encourage people to question and consider where we are today. I hope that the exhibition doesn’t come over as telling people what to think. Rather I would hope that it will cause people think about the issues.

By Izora Baba, Oxford House volunteer