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“Where are you from?” is a question Philippe Sibelly has pondered a lot. Born in Marseilles, Philippe has travelled widely, living in Sydney and Ireland before settling in London.
It’s London’s multiculturalism that inspired his World in One City challenge. In 2005, in the run-up to the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics, Philippe decided to capture that multiculturalism in a photography project.
A year and a half later, Philippe had a set of 202 photographs, representing each of the countries taking part in the Olympic Games at the time. (Now there are 205). The photos are all currently on display in Rich Mix in East London. In each Polaroid portrait, the subject is holding the previous photo, creating a chain, Philippe explains, like the Olympic flame. In view of our own current World in London blog project, I felt I had to go and meet him.
“At the start, it was really easy,” Philippe says. “I thought, ‘I know people from pretty much everywhere.’ I tried doing things to challenge people’s perceptions. Karim from Peru is a refugee from Palestine. So he doesn’t look like he’s from Peru. But he is. And in the next photo, he’s being held by an Israeli, Maya.”
“But it became more and more difficult. It started taking so long. I spent hours on email, organising with friends, travelling around the city to meet people from different places. To New Malden to find someone from South Korea. To Woolwich to meet someone from Africa…”
“Some days, I’d travel around and only take one or two photos. It was really, really frustrating.”
As well as meeting friends of friends and colleagues, Philippe says he also stopped people in the street to ask where they were from. “Very few people got annoyed,” he says. “Really, despite what people say, Londoners are very open. It may be because I’m a foreigner myself, but people were open to taking part.”
Looking through the chain of photos is fascinating. Philippe remembers all of them, and recounts many anecdotes that stand out for him.
About Jonas, a monk from the Solomon Islands; Fredi from Mali, a footballer who played for Tottenham and West Ham; how top London chef Giorgio Locatelli wanted to represent Italy; and about Magdalena from Serbia Montenegro.
Magdalena presents what Philippe finds is an interesting question. In his project, she represents a country that no longer exists. Where does she say she’s “from” now? The slightly artificial construct of nationality fascinates Philippe. The boys he photographed to represent Haiti (Adam) and Pakistan (Zishaan) have never actually been to those countries. “But Adam said it would make his mother, who’s from Haiti, very proud. And Zishaan, well, he thinks of himself as fully English and fully Pakistani. He said to me, ‘How can I be half and half? I’m both.’ I find that strong sense of nationalism, from people who’ve never even been to the country they say they’re from, very strange.”
It’s a testament to London’s unique diversity that of the whole list of Olympic nations (a list he chose because it’s fairly neutral), Philippe only struggled to find people from about five. “For these five nations I chose someone linked in some way to this place: someone who has lived there, has family there, or even, in the case of Nauru, I settled for someone who knew where it was.”
Philippe has mixed views on the complex issue of London’s multiculturalism. “Diversity is great, but you can’t be too romantic about it. It’s not always a positive thing for everyone. When your local shop stops selling your sausages and starts selling samosas, it can be difficult for people to get used to.
“The best people can do is live with it, and get the positives out of it. Take the good.”