Emmanuel Cole’s Photographs Capture the Beating Heart of London

Pin It
Bearing Witness by Emmanuel Cole
Notting Hill, 2022Photography by Emmanuel Cole. Courtesy of antonia&louise

The photographer’s debut monograph captures everyday moments with a sense of humour and sincerity. “I feel like I’ve always understood the people I capture, as I am one of them,” he says

There’s a motley perception of London – at once grimy and antiquated, contemporary and traditional, it’s where pristine shops flogging £7 loaves of sourdough are erected near food banks, and decrepit high-rise tower blocks are considered eyesores from the windows of the sprawling townhouses nearby. Born and raised in London, Emmanuel Cole has observed the evolving soul of the British capital, holding his camera up to the urban bustle and to those people we tend to overlook, who in fact make up the backbone of the city. Publishing his photographs on Instagram, he’s steadily accumulated a following of over 100,000 with his pure and direct depictions of London and its inhabitants, which are now compiled into his debut monograph, Bearing Witness. “I feel like I’ve always understood the people I capture, as I am one of them,” the photographer says.

“Photography came into my life in 2010 [in my late teens], after a chance encounter on the number N38 bus,” Cole remembers. “He was a photographer and I sat next to him. He showed me a few pictures and that inspired me to look up what photography was about. I was hooked. Since I got off that bus that day, photography has been my main focus.” Without a formal education, merely with a self-proclaimed “obsessive” nature, Cole began teaching himself how to take photographs through videos online, first turning his lens to London landmarks, but “after three years or so, I realised my strengths lie in my communication with people, so I’ve since focused on street photography and street portraiture.”

Capturing the weary faces of commuters standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the London underground, stubbing out cigarettes in Upton Park, or queuing outside of chicken shops in Bermondsey, Cole sees a reality that’s not always deemed beautiful, focusing on everyday mundanities and the theatre of the street. His brief snapshots address a larger populace while highlighting the tender sense of intimacy in community, while his portraits are seized off-the-cuff in disarming affection with a sense of surprise and humour. “I like to photograph people who remind me of elements of myself,” Cole says. “Sometimes young people, sometimes older people, and at times it can be kids as they have this joy for life that reminds me of how much of a kid I still am.”

It’s this sincerity in Cole’s gaze that makes his work emit a heartfelt warmth. “Some of the people and communities I photograph are not always shown in a positive light, or shown at all,” he says. Instead, he acts as a real-world witness, their personalities fixed to each page of his monograph in glorious, often merciless detail. “I would say that things are changing as the new generation are noticing [those who were previously less noticed], and are shining a torch on some of London’s forgotten or less represented communities, and that's amazing.”

Cole’s photo book closes with a cinematic image under the cavernous arches around London Bridge, seeing its passersby uncharacteristically obscured by the warm morning light against the fog. “This was taken on my first day shooting with my full-frame camera. I’d only used an iPhone before. I was late to work taking that picture, and faced a disciplinary because of it.” In the churning machine of the big city, where millions tread the hamster wheel on their daily humdrum routines, Cole’s images find a small comfort in stopping for a brief moment to take in one’s surroundings, with an honest wonderment and curiosity. “It’s always happening, life, and occasionally you’re there to see it. Occasionally there’s a moment. Things slow down, the city arranges itself differently. And I think: snap.”

Bearing Witness by Emmanuel Cole is published by antonia&louise and is out now.