Sarah Ainslie is a Tower Hamlets based photographer who has documented local life for decades. Inspired by east London, her latest exhibition 'Women of Bethnal Green At Work' is on display at Oxford House until 31 March. We spoke with her to learn more about her life as a photographer.

Women of Bethnal Green At Work: Q&A with Photographer Sarah Ainslie

When did you first start taking photos?
Probably when I was about 12 and was given a brownie film camera and was part of a camera club at school, I took photos using black and white film mainly of my friends and family and made albums.


Have you always taken portraits? If so, what is it about portraiture that inspires you?
I have also worked as a theatre photographer for many years , mainly in London photographing rehearsals and productions. I have been based in the east end since the mid 80’s and it is the people and place that has inspired the projects and work that I become involved in whether it was photographing Brick Lane, Smithfield Meat Market, Shoreditch, walking from Limehouse to Tilbury or collaborating with Spitalfields Life. In that sense it is important that the portraits of people are within their own space either at home or work.


Did you ever consider another career path?
No, I have been lucky to find different ways of working within the breadth and range that photography offers which for me has been very rich and diverse whether working as a theatre photographer, facilitating community groups, working with Spitalfields Life, getting commissions, and working on my own projects.


Did you study photography? / Are you self taught?
I did study photography and then stopped when I left college partly because of health reasons and then got involved with printing etching editions for an editioning studio. I then decided to start working as a theatre photographer by putting together a portfolio and visiting theatre companies to get work. For many years I was working with these companies and then during a trip to South Africa with Theatre Nomad I became interested in collaborating and photographing a group of women in a township in Grahamstown, where as part of the project they also took their own photographs with disposable cameras and tell their stories. That really inspired me to branch out and get involved in community projects in the east end where I live and work.


What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Think about what interests and what inspires you whether it is fashion, street, documentary, portraiture, telling stories or abstract there’s a place for everything and having a focus is always helpful. There are stories and worlds that can be close to where you are living or working which can be important to share. Find other people who are doing the same either at college or local clubs, and there are a few free courses. See if there is someone who could mentor and discuss with you about the direction that you are following. Look at other people’s work. Keep your passion and love for photography even when it’s hard.


Who are your biggest artistic influences?
There are many and I am always inspired by the people that I work with, the lives people live. I love the portraits of the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Velasquez, the photographer Seydou Keita, Graciella Iterbide and many more there are always new people that inspire me.


Can you tell us a bit about your 1990s project Hackney Working Women?
In 1991 I was commissioned by Hackney Museum to document the working lives of women in Hackney. I wanted to photograph the wide spectrum of women’s work that is often unrecognised and yet plays such an important part within the fabric of the community. It ranged from the rubbish collectors on their rounds, machinists who were working behind the scenes creating garments for Burberry, the staff at Homerton Hospital where everyone from Drs to cleaners are equally important to each other and the patients. There were women driving buses, street sweeping, firefighting, running projects in the community and making films in their kitchens and many more. It was always fascinating searching and meeting these remarkable women.


Did this project inspire/resonate with your most recent exhibition ‘Women of Bethnal Green at Work’?
Oxford House approached me because of the Women of the East End at Work series which I exhibited at the Brady Centre in 2018, the exhibition was a combination of the Hackney Working Women project and photographs of women that I had been taking as a contributing photographer on Spitalfields Life since 2010. So, to be commissioned to photograph and make an exhibition of working women in Bethnal Green has been a wonderful continuation of the project and to be able to form more collaborations in the area.


What made you wish to capture the work of women in Bethnal Green?
I have been working in the East End since the 1980’s and the opportunity to explore the working lives of women in a different part of the East End was very exciting. Also, it is 30 years since I made the Hackney project and so as life has changed so has some of peoples working practices, for example there were no women sweeping the streets or working on the dustcarts around Bethnal Green in 2022.


Were there any particularly special or notable moments during your photoshoots for this project?
There were many notable moments. Everyone was so happy to collaborate and be part of the exhibition and each meeting was different and I learnt so much about each woman’s life. I went to photograph Maria and Anna Pellicci at Pellicci’s early one morning, the kitchen was buzzing and Maria who is over 80 and comes in at 7am every morning was making spinach filling for the cannelloni and Anna was making cooked breakfasts for everyone in the café. It was a wonderful welcoming atmosphere and a place filled with a love of sharing food. I was trying to find a postwoman so went to the Emma St distribution office and met a cleaner who said she would ask around and came back with a number of someone called Donna, when we spoke we realised that I had photographed her for the Hackney Women project 30 years ago so when I went out with her on her round it was such a wonderful re-meeting and seeing where our lives were after so many years.


Is it important to you that the photographs are displayed in a Bethnal Green-based venue?
Yes, this is such a wonderful place to show these photographs and it is very important that these are displayed in the café at Oxford House as this is a community hub where people come to meet and have coffee and take classes and work. It is especially lovely when the women in the photographs who work in Bethnal Green are recognised and celebrated for being the wonderful women that they are by the people of the area.


‘Women of Bethnal Green At Work’ is on display at Oxford House until 31 March 2023. Find out more here.