Murder #38, Negus McLean, Edmonton
Negus McLean, 15, was stabbed to death in Edmonton after being chased by around 7 young men riding bicycles and wearing hooded jumpers and facemasks. Negus was then beaten with metal poles before being stabbed in the thigh and chest with such force that the blade snapped off in his body. He was found injured in Westminster Road and died after being taken to hospital. 4 young men were charged and convicted of the murder.
I took the 102 bus from near my house to Edmonton when I heard a teenager had been stabbed to death by a gang. Normally I waited a few days but I decided to go to the murder site as soon as I had heard. The bus route terminated not far from Westminster Road and so I walked before I surprisingly encountered some news photographers and a couple of TV news teams. The photographers kept away from the scene and used long lenses but I was a bit perplexed since the police tape was down and the police were already letting people into the street. One of the photographers warned me that there were some mourners down the street and did not want to be photographed. I looked down the street and sure enough I could see a small crowd of young people around flowers marking the spot where Negus McClean had died.
After a few minutes I sucked in some air and with camera mounted on a tripod I walked toward the mourners. Having to ask people grieving a death if I can photograph them and explaining why was the hardest part of my project. I was nervous but I forced myself to do this. There was about 15 teenagers gathered around the flower memorial and I went up to them and I told them I was sorry to disturb them, that I was sorry for their loss. I told them I was a photographer photographing all the places where people where murdered in London and if I could please be allowed to photograph them as they mourned their friend. I would keep a respectful distance and photograph from across the street for a few minutes and then I would leave them alone. Expecting to be told no I was surprised when they said yes and thanked me for asking. A couple of the older boys walked away and one hid behind a lamppost but otherwise they let me get on with it. I worked quickly and when I looked through my viewfinder I knew I was looking at something special. The way the kids were aligned against the wall crying, texting on their phones or just looking numbed was different from anything I had photographed for my project so far. I was now nervous that I wasn’t getting this photo right. I kept checking my focus and my exposures, worried that I was gonna fuck up the photo.
I only photographed from one position for about 20 minutes. I kept wanting to stay but I felt I had intruded long enough and my presence was preventing other people from approaching the scene. I packed up my gear and crossed the street to thank the teenagers. I gave one of the my card and said they should free free to contact me if they wanted a copy of the photograph. I passed the other photographers still to afraid too get near the scene on my way out. I was a bit stunned at what I had witnessed and kept checking the back of my digital camera as I sat on the bus on my way home. At home I loaded the photos on to my laptop and looked at the images for a long time. I hadn’t planned on showing my images to anyone until the project was finished but I thought that this photo needed to be seen and I called up Roger Tooth at the Guardian and asked him to look at the image and to see if he would consider it for the Eyewitness double spread in the newspaper. A few minutes later he rang and said they would use it.
On the 13th of April, the image ran in the Guardian newspaper and soon my phone kept ringing. The image got a lot of attention and soon I was getting a lot of queries about my project from the BBC, other newspapers in Britain and Europe and even a few european radio shows. I think if I can say my project was successful, I can say it was this image that made it a success. It brought a lot of attention and it convinced me I was headed in the right direction. The image was later exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and at the Foto8 Summershow bringing further exposure to my project.
I may not have continued my project if I had not made this image of young people mourning their friend Negus McLean. Its always an uneasy relationship that photographers have when they photograph tragic events. Its easy to forget the tragic circumstances that surround a photograph. People start commenting on the aesthetic qualities of a photograph over the content of the image itself. It can be easy to forget that a young 15 year old boy was stabbed to death brutally by a gang chasing him and his young brother.
I am proud of the photograph because It shows young people not as something to be frightened of but as vulnerable human beings. Too many times we see young people portrayed as potential criminals to be feared. Gang violence is a problem but if you believe the tabloid coverage you would end up believing that London was teeming with gangs of teenagers armed with knives looking for their next victim. I know this is not the case.
I wish I could thank those kids who let me into their grief stricken world even if just for a short time. I expected them to call me after the photograph got a lot of exposure but they never did. An Evening Standard reporter tried to track down the kids in the image but got nowhere. I have travelled a lot throughout my career and have learned one overall lesson. That human beings all over the world are very kind even in the most stressful of situations. I have learned to trust my instincts and learned never to be afraid of anyone unless they gave me good reason. I am very glad I wasn’t afraid of those kids gathered on Westminster Road mourning the loss of their friend Negus McLean.
Murder #37, Kowshar Hussain, Stepney
Kowshar Hussain, 24, was stabbed to death in the street in Stepney on April 2, 2011. He was attacked by a group of men seeking revenge against his brother-in-law. The victim was transferring a baby seat between vehicles when the gang arrived armed with a wheel brace, screwdrivers and knives. Mr. Hussain was stabbed nine times and died shortly after arrival at hospital. Four men were convicted of murder and jailed for life.
Murder #36, Winston Brown, Walthamstow
Winston Brown, 33, was stabbed to death in Walthamstow on April 1, 2011. He was found injured in Brunel Road and died shortly after arrival at hospital. The cause of death as a stab wound to the chest. 5 suspects were arrested but only one, Anthony Townsend, 32, was charged with murder. The court heard Townsend stabbed Mr. Brown in the chest for stealing his phone. Townsend was cleared of murder but convicted of manslaughter.
Murder #35, Kelvin Easton, Mile End
Kelvin Easton, 23, was stabbed to death in a nightclub in Mile End. He was found collapsed at the bottom of the stairs at Boheme nightclub. Easton was pronounced dead at the scene and a postmortem gave the cause of death as a stab wound to the heart. 12 men were arrested during the investigation and one charged but no one was found guilty of the murder.
If I had to name the top ten road junctions I know in London, Mile End Road crossing Grove Road/Burdett Road in East London would be among them. And yet I probably never noticed the Boheme Nightclub at its southeast corner. When I read about the murder I couldn’t picture a nightclub there ut there it was as I came out of Mile End Station. Kelvin Easton had been murdered there but it wasn’t clear if it was inside or outside. I walked around the nightclub and at first concluded wrongly that it had occurred outside based on the police tape around the back. Unsatisfied I walked around the building some more and saw forensic detectives walk through the front door of the club. I peaked through the small glass windows and saw broken bottles, overturned chairs and blood. The glass was very opaque and I knew I couldn’t get a photo shooting through it and besides they were not the kinda photos I was looking to make. So I crossed the road and from several vantage points I made photographs of the front of the Boheme, which had a few already wilting flowers, marking the death of Easton, by the front door. Few people noticed the flowers but most passerbys did not or were completely unaware a murder had taken place. It was what interested me more than anything, …how people react or don’t react or are unaware of the violence around them.
The murder of Kelvin Easton was never officially solved despite several arrests. Little did I know that Easton’s murder would indirectly lead to the London Riots a year later. Easton was a cousin of Mark Duggan, and possibly members of the same gang. It was thought by the police that Duggan knew who killed his cousin and was planning revenge. It was one of the reasons the police were monitoring Duggan, rightly or wrongly, and led to to the police shooting him dead in Walthamstow. I don’t know how true this story is but I heard it a lot during the time of my project and its come out as well during the inquest into Duggan’s death. Part of me thinks that the police are having trouble justifying the shooting. But there is a certain logic to it.Not the shooting but why they were monitoring Duggan. The biggest thing I take from it is how everything is connected and how one seemingly violent but obscure event can lead to something like the tragedy of the London riots.
Murder #34, Alan Smith, Leyton
Alan Smith, 63, was stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack on March 26, 2011. Mr. Smith had spotted a 3 year-old girl crying and asked whether she was ok only to be confronted by her father. He then walked to a cafe and minutes later the same man entered and stabbed Smith. Matthew Quesada, 25, was arrested and charged with murder. Quesada was convicted of murder and jailed for life.
Eileen Jones, 73, was battered to death at a flat in Bethnal Green on March 23, 2011. Jones was found lying in a pool of blood. A postmortem gave the cause of death as blunt force injuries to her head and chest. Christopher Newton, 45, was charged with murder and went on trial on November 24, 2011. Newton was convicted of murder and was jailed for life with a minimum of 22 years before parole.
Most people are murdered indoors. Usually in their home by someone they know. I knew this when I embarked on this project. But I did wonder how this would play out for me as time went on. I knew the area well where Eileen Jones died. She died in Mandela House on Virginia Road which I must have passed by at least a hundred times, never taking notice of the nursing home where Jones was murdered. Mandela House was just a block down the road from the Columbia Flower Market, one of my favourite hangouts in London. So I turned up one freezing grey morning and soon found myself standing in front of Mandela House. No flowers or anything marked the fact that a murder had taken place inside. The building itself was as grey as the day. Nothing I did photographically seemed to work and I left defeated wondering where I was going with the project. Failure makes you question everything. I came back the next night after sunset determined to make a photograph . I figured the night would give me something more to work with then the previous morning’s grey light. I eventually chose a vantage point from across the road that was lit up by the warning lights of the zebra crossing and the street lamps.
I mention all this because sometimes I had nothing obvious to photograph when trying to convey murder, violence, death other than light. Light helps me suggest darkness, something ominous has taken place. I knew at the time that the crime must have been quite straightforward. The suspect must have been caught quickly, and the investigation wrapped up by 24 hours. No police tape littered the area as it usually did after a murder investigation. No flowers laid by the entrance to the building as it had in other murder sites I had visited. Nothing for me to hang my photograph on except the light.
Since March 2011, the place where Eileen Jones died is the one I come across the most of all the places I photographed. Nothing about Mandela House has changed or gives a hint to the passerby that a much loved grandmother was brutally beaten to death for apparently no reason while attempting to share some food with a blind neighbour. It has made me think how sheltered we are from death (violent or natural causes) in modern life.
Wlodzimierz Szymanski, 59, died at his home in Willesden on March 18, 2011. Police were called to the address in Chandos Road and found the victim had suffered a head injury. He was pronounced dead at the scene. A postmortem revealed the cause of death was a broken neck. Detectives first treated the case as suspicious. A 56 year-old woman was arrested on suspicion of murder but was later released. The death is listed as an undetected homicide.
A murder takes place according to the police but then no more information. Eventually it is listed as an undetected homicide. I hesitated for months about going to Willesden to photograph the site where Wlodzimierz Szymanski died. I was sure that the police would eventually classify it as something else, anything but murder. Over the course of my 2 year project this would happen occasionally. But after months it remained on the books as murder. So I eventually made my way to Willesden Green Tube Station which I was very familiar with. I used to live in Kilburn and one of the first stories I ever worked in London on was on a large Squat and its inhabitants, just around the corner from the tube station. Finding Chandos Road, I proceeded to ask local residents about the murder. I got enough info to figure out which house Szymaski died in. Its hard to explain why I didn’t go with a photo that had a direct look at the house. But I didn’t and chose the one above.
I had googled Szymanski + Murder a lot since then and still very little info. The police arrested a partner or a spouse but its not clear. And then released her. Not even the local papers reported the death. A very silent murder. One whose privacy was airtight. I wondered if Szymanski was a Polish national who had made his way to London looking for work and a better life and just disappeared into its void.
The photo above was taken from Melrose Avenue in Willesden where Dennis Nilsen killed 12 boys and men in the 70s and 80s. He later moved to Muswell Hill and murdered 3 more people. I had never heard of Nilsen before I came to London but sometime in the late 90s I had an assignment for the Observer Newspaper to do a portrait of a writer who lived a few doors down from Nilsen’s former house. He told me the whole story. I now live in North London and not very far from the place where Nilsen continued his murder spree in Muswell Hill. Luckily in the two years of my project no murders took place committed by a serial killer like Nilsen. Killers like Nilsen though have a huge influence of how we view murder. Its easy to imagine someone like Nilsen but quite hard to imagine someone we know, who are close to being the one who ends our life. Nilsen embodies the idea of evil being behind murder. Its rarely the case.
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