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JJ Keith : Open Britain : Portrait of a Diverse Nation


 Open Britain: Portrait of a Diverse Nation is a personal project by London photographer JJ Keith, celebrating the multiculturalism of Britain. First started in January 2023, this ongoing endeavour is inspired by his purpose to remind people of the value of inclusivity and open borders – and how the reciprocity of ‘give and take’ has served this country so well. Keith’s portraits focus on first generation immigrants that have settled in the UK, from Caribbean transport worker to Filipino yoga teacher to retired Indian GP. Through these intimate pictures, he presents how their successes, hardships, and adventures have contributed to the UK’s cultural, social, and economic landscape – qualities which together make Britain Great.

The series was initiated at first by chance, when in January 2023, a loose photographic project concept took Keith and his camera to Shepherds Bush Market, where he met and captured Osman in his colourful juice stall. Osman was born in Osman Village, just outside Cairo, the first born of five. Gaining knowledge from his father, a fruit and vegetable farmer, he built a successful import and export business with over two hundred and fifty employees – however severely missed payments from an international company resulted in Osman having to borrow both stock and money, through which eventually he found himself homeless in London. Picked up by Streetlink he was sent to the homeless charities The Passage, St Mungos and No Second Night Out. With his mental health severely deteriorating, Osman contacted the Westminster NHS Mental Health Team – a start to his turnaround. Remembering what he learned in childhood, Osman noticed the juice offering in London was poor. With not even a pound in his pocket he went to the charity Tern who gave him a loan of £5,300 to start a juice stall in Shepherds Bush Market. Five years on, Osman now not only sells his delicious juice from the market but has a shop and a restaurant on the Goldhawk Road, a shop on the Portobello Road and has another opening soon in Victoria. Osman still gives 5% of all his profit to No Second Night Out.

Keith is the son of two migrants – his father was welcomed to the UK when he fled Austria in the Second World war. Osman’s story therefore struck a particular chord. So his journey of documenting first generation migrants began.

Keith’s subjects also include Viveth Hardy – “The station lady that sings.” Popular among local commuters using the overground train in Northwest London, with her sunny disposition and gift of song, Viveth is “Jamaican born and bred” but moved to London 2002.

Florent Charly Romain Bidois was born in 1986 “just like Lady Gaga,” he says. His parents were both cleaners for a City Council near Rennes and still live where they grew up. “I am different. I am a Breton through and through, I’m a sailor, I’m a traveller, I’m an adventurer. I am Indiana Jones. Rennes was too small and France too judgemental.”

A Turkish Cypriot, Umit, now 62, came to the UK when he was nine. His Grandfather, Behjet, had a cinema in Lefke in the North of Cyprus. “I have a lot to thank my grandfather for,” he says fondly.

Jama Elmi is from Somalia and moved to the UK when he was eight, with his five siblings and father – who, as an ambassador to the UK, was able to migrate to flee the Civil War. While initially Jama found it difficult to make friends and integrate at his school in Chalk Farm, his flamboyant and confident style soon had the kids flocking to the child in pink trousers and a Hawaiian shirt

JJ reveals the London-wide section of the project ahead of its 1st year anniversary in January 2024.

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