Commuting in London is almost always a chore. A necessary means to get from a to b via the quickest possible route, the quality of conditions usually sacrificed to save those precious extra 15mins. Some days it’s bearable, some days it’s fun (usually post-alcohol consumption) but other days, like last Thursday in fact, conspire to unravel your generally good nature until you reach a twitchy, hysterical, borderline murderous state. 33 degrees outside, god knows what temperature down in the bowels of the London tube network. On a day like this a swift service is surely expected. Extra effort made to ensure things run smoothly; to reduce fainting, dehydration, sweat-transferred pandemic inception etc. No? No. Delays on every line. Well, every line I needed, anyway. An hour and a half later I emerged, blinking into the sun like an overawed mole, grateful for my escape into freedom like a rescued miner.
On arriving, shortly after this, at the Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, I was awarded for my struggle a little slice of cool calm, a haven of friendly vegan relaxation amongst the heady chaos of the area. One much-needed Pinot in hand, I turned to look at what I had come here to see. Cristina Boyton’s photographs of the Circuit in Nepal are immediately striking, before the subject matter even comes into focus. The blue hits you first, contrasted sharply against grey and stone. Saturation vs monochrome; a visual language which runs throughout the set of images and seems to link with the concept explored in the subject matter. Rich vs plain, luxury vs poverty. The Circuit is a now-famous hiking route in Nepal, renowned for its stunning scenery and ticking every ‘perfect trail’ box. Obviously, as are our wonderful human tendencies, when we find something of stunning natural beauty we tend to either hunt it to extinction, westernise it to extinction, or in this case, are so desperate to each have a piece of it, that we end up exploiting and destroying it.
This is potentially the fate of the Circuit and it’s indigenous inhabitants, who carry on with their daily grind alongside kids kitted in Berghaus on their gap year, the latter blissfully unaware of the damage they may be doing just by being there. A rich, commercialised, western contingent trampling loudly through this quiet, agrarian landscape. Gaudy vs restrained. To this end I must admit I was slightly disappointed that the sizing of the photographs wasn’t actually reversed. The mountainous landscape images, though very pretty, were less compelling than the human studies, although those which captured the town in the foothills succeeded in exemplifying the dramatic sense of scale which must surely dominate these views in the flesh. The shot of the pensive young boy is undoubtedly the strongest image, a nod to the innocence of this area and the modest lifestyles taking place in the shadow of the mountains. A woman in the next image counts beans, engrossed in her work, the bright tones of her clothing picking up the blue of the majestic landscapes. Shots of villagers milling about the dusty streets instinctively drew my gaze deeper, closer, to see more clearly their expressions and perhaps decipher a dialogue through a meaningful look.
It’s no surprise then that Cristina’s forte is documentary photography of a social nature. With a background in media and photography, her projects focus upon relationships; people, places, routines and tradition. Her usual “style and preference is to spend time with people”, getting to know her subjects closely before and during prolonged shoots, often over months at a time, and so capturing certain aspects of their individual lives and personalities in specific detail. This particular set of photographs however, were necessarily immediate, with shots caught at sudden and opportune moments on a journey through the region. It adds a certain magic. The honesty of the images are what makes them so appealing; no studio, no set-up, just the reality of life in this spectacular, yet threatened landscape.
Within the surroundings of the small, endearing Gallery Cafe, with its large windows at the back overlooking jungle-like greenery, the smell of baking wafting from the kitchen and service with a very friendly smile, the exhibition was given an interesting twist, evoking certain sensations it may not have, had it been shown in a traditional white-walled gallery setting. One customer pointed out that the images made him feel ‘cool on a hot day’, the moist blue tones and high-altitude scenery projecting the sensation of a swift fresh breeze sighing its way through the cafe table legs. And indeed, the life of the place; the chatter, the laughter and the clink of bottles, somehow make you feel as if you really are there, as if you are sitting in this rustic little cafe not minutes away from the clamour of Roman Road, but high-up in the Annapurna Mountain range, gazing out over this endangered community for perhaps the last time.
The Circuit is showing until 31st August at The Gallery Café, 21 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green,E2 9PL www.stmargaretshouse.org.uk
All photographs are copyright Cristina Boyton / www.smallfontphotographer.com