Growing up in south-east London as a child of immigrants, Nico Froehlich would try to hide certain elements of his everyday existence. “I remember my childhood home was known as ‘the house with the curtains’, because my mum would put up the brightest coloured and funkiest fabrics you could possibly imagine as curtains. As a youngster this would embarrass me a great deal; I did not see the importance of variety back then,” he tells CR.
In reality, south-east London is home to some of the most ethnically and culturally diverse communities in the UK – from the multicultural melting pots of Lewisham and Southwark to the Brutalist blocks of Thamesmead and the estates. The need to celebrate this diversity is something that Froehlich only realised once he got older, and which he continues to explore in his work as a photographer today.
While the imagemaker has long been obsessed with observing human behaviour and originally wanted to train as an actor, this curiosity gradually transitioned into a knack for documentary photography.
This series was entered in our student/graduate category – Froehlich only graduated from Ravensbourne University London’s digital photography course earlier this year, though has already been commissioned by brands ranging from Mozilla to the Philharmonia.
South of the River is undoubtedly Froehlich’s most significant project to date. It finds the photographer actively seeking out and championing the very things that he obscured and disregarded when he was growing up. “2020 was quite a catalyst. I took a step back and asked myself, ‘What type of photographer do I want to be, and what do I want to communicate with my work?’ I decided to take some ownership in representing and celebrating the place where I was born and raised, and to provide a working-class perspective of a place incredibly vibrant and rich in variety,” he says of the inspiration behind the project.
As an ongoing, long-form photo series, Froehlich’s approach to it is constantly evolving. “I gradually became more comfortable engaging with people on the street. Candid street photography and not asking people for their permission was always my comfort zone, but for this project it was important to shift my approach and treat it as a collaborative endeavour. I still take candid street shots, but engaging with people on the street and building genuine relationships is essential – especially for this type of work,” he says.
The result is part social realism, part biographical, but ultimately is a celebration of the working-class spirit and rich diversity of the place Froehlich calls home.
And as gentrification and change continue to tighten their grip on the area, Froehlich recognises that it’s now more important than ever to recognise the beauty of this diversity, along with the perseverance of a declining working-class community. “I have no ‘end date’ – I can imagine I’ll be working on this project for at least another ten years,” he says. “It requires a real investment in time to observe the gradual nuances and subtleties of change.”