This Photographer Documents the People Who Visit London's Food Banks

"Some of them wanted to talk about the injustice that had been happening to them. They're all aware that it happens a lot. They feel like it's not right."

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May 25 2017, 5:58pm

For many in the UK, the smallest change in circumstance—perhaps being unable to work due to sickness or an unexpected bill—can mean the difference between affording food and going hungry. According to a report released this April from food bank charity the Trussell Trust, the number of donations given out by volunteer-run organisations is on the rise. Last year, 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies were received across the UK—an increase of 70,000 from the year before.

The Trussell Trust found that most food bank users are forced into doing so due to low income or delays and changes to their benefit allowances. Other research has shown that food bank usage is linked to increased housing costs, lack of free school lunches during the holidays, and harsher benefit sanctioning. And with Brexit now threatening to hike the cost of a weekly food shop and the Tories pledging to scrap free school lunches (while undercosting a plan to replace the scheme with free breakfasts), the number of people relying on food banks only looks set to rise.

But what about the individuals behind these facts and figures? London-based photographer Kristian Buus wants to give food bank users a way to tell their stories. His new photo project, Voices from the Vault, is a series of portraits and video interviews with people who have received emergency food packages in Hackney, a rapidly gentrifying area of East London that still has some of the highest poverty rates in the city.

Setting up makeshift studio and interview space next to two of the borough's food banks, Buus spoke to anyone willing to talk about their situation. Among the portraits he captured are a man who had £2 left to feed himself and a mother attempting to live on £70 a week after leaving an abusive marriage.

Miss D had to stop working in 2014 on medical grounds. All photos and captions by Kristian Buus.

We caught up with Buus to find out more about the people he met and what Voices from the Vault can tell us about poverty in modern Britain.

MUNCHIES: Hi Kristian. Why did you want to focus on food banks and why Hackney?
Kristian Buus: I've lived in Hackney for 20 years. I've seen Hackney change a lot over that time. It's a lot more affluent than it used to be which is a good thing but I was always aware that that doesn't count for everyone. There's a big part of Hackney's population for whom things haven't changed.

Food bank figures are talked about a lot, especially to talk about poverty and food poverty. I was aware that there were food banks in Hackney so I thought I'd look into it. I wanted to hear people's stories about why they needed to use food banks and tell those stories to the wider world.

I started back in 2013 and have been doing the project on and off over the last five years. Because it's all done off my own back, it was a matter of finding the time and also dependent on finding people who were willing to share their stories.

Robert has had two heart implants and is diagnosed with epilepsy. He recently had his benefits stopped.

How did you go about collecting people's stories?
I set up a mobile studio at two out of the four food banks in Hackney, which were churches and had the facilities for me to set up. I would set up in the church while the food bank would be set up in an annex building next door.

I'd then spend time in the annex where people would come in to get food and see the volunteers who deal with their cases. I would have my camera round my neck so it was obvious I was a photographer. I would just talk to people and approach people who I thought were approachable but would leave people who I felt were visibly in a bad place.

Paula Couch and son. Paula failed an ATOS medical test and has had her benefits cut for a couple of months.

What was the reaction from people when you approached them?
People would quite happily talk to me but then a lot of those people didn't want to talk on camera. Some people didn't want that part of their life documented and possibly be seen by future employers, for example. People come to the food bank for many different reasons, all equally valid reasons, which I felt was the story to tell. But it's also the hardest story to tell.

With the people who were happy to talk on camera, they felt it was a very important story to tell. Some of them wanted to talk about the injustice that had been happening to them. They're all aware that it happens a lot. They feel like it's not right.

Tom has suffered from depression for years due to a violent upbringing. He is gay and can't tell his family out of fear of a violent reaction.

The exhibition includes photographers and video—why include both?
It started as a portrait project but I wanted to hear people's stories behind the portraits. First, I decided to record the stories, then I decided to video-record them. Then I thought, let's video-record and take a portrait so the stories would work on a page and a screen.

Rather than just have talking heads with cuts of the food bank, I decided to shoot on a green screen so I could superimpose the food behind them. I wanted to show the food people are given. The food bank try to source the best food possible and accommodate dietary needs but it's still tinned food and non-perishables. They're tied in by what they've got.

Chetna is a mother of four who had to leave home due to an abusive marriage. She is currently sofa-surfing in Hackney and finds it difficult to make ends meet with only £70 a week and no home of her own.

What did you set out to achieve when you started the project? Has that changed along the way?
I think it's developed into something bigger than what I set out to achieve. I met a lot of people and talked to a lot of people who are not in project for various reasons, so I've learned a lot.

As a tiny microcosm, it reflects the problem that people fall through the system of social services and social health. It's sometimes really hard to unpick what went wrong and where they fell through. Quite often it goes back to the system—it's almost rigged to fail. Lots of people feel that they did their best but there are circumstances that aren't taken into account.

The whole system is dysfunctional and creates a need for food banks which shouldn't be there. The food bank itself is quite vocal and clear about the fact that they don't want to be the solution.

Danny works one day a week in a call centre and is looking for work as an actor. On his low income, even small financial upsets can break his budget.

What effect do you hope the project will have?
On a small scale, after talking to most of the people involved, they had a good experience talking about their issues. On a large scale, these people aren't just representing themselves but bigger issues. The more exposure, the better for this project because I hope it will create an understanding about food banks and the issues around them. The project could spread to other areas to generate understanding of what goes on in other local neighbourhoods, generate support for the food banks themselves, and be part of a bigger push for humanising the system.

Let's hope that it does. Thank you for talking with me, Kristian.


Kristian Buus is a London-based freelance photographer. Voices from the Vault is showing at Diffusion photography festival in Cardiff until the end of May.