Then There Was Us

Hannah Norton's Community Cook Up aims to break down barriers of social stigma

2023-02-16 – Feature

UK, Community

Community Cook Up is a series that welcomes members of a North London community who use food banks to open up about their experiences and break down the barriers of social stigma in a time of hardship.

Hannah Norton has volunteered at The Community Cook Up in North London for four years. Through her series, members of the public are encouraged to share their stories and sit down for a photograph. The aim of the project is to make people feel welcome and to remove any social stigma for anybody that is hesitant to use a food bank because of any judgment they may face. “I believe that in the cost of living crisis, it’s important that we need to overcome barriers of social judgment and continue to build the notion of solidarity and interconnectedness to create a better society,” says Hannah. The series of photographs and words tell stories of people in the community in North London who regularly use The Community Cook Up.

Stella

Stella was evicted from her house when she was in her late fifties, within minutes she became homeless, and would remain so for the next thirteen years. In the weeks following her eviction she was passed around different shelters, traveling all over London in order to secure a bed for the night before eventually being put into a hostel where she remained until a few months ago. Stella was miserable in the hostel, she relentlessly pursued her freedom, and this year, through consistently advocating for herself, someone heard about her situation who was able to help.

Stella was someone I saw every week, but this image I took of her was the first time she wanted her photo taken, about six months into the photography project. The week before, Stella had been moved out of the hostel and into her own flat.

We are sitting in her new place, looking at the photos I have taken of her. I ask Stella what she wants people to take away from seeing her image.

‘What I really want people to take away is, in anything in life, just be yourself, be truthful, have a pleasant mind, have a mind of helping others, have a mind of sharing whatever you have with others. Whatever you still have, you can still give other people life, even though you are thinking to yourself that you don’t have life at that moment. You have life because you are still alive, and when there is life there is hope. When I was in the midst of all the challenges I was still encouraging people. Even in the church where I go I was encouraging people to come and join and come for help, don’t think you are by yourself. Know that there is a way out. Make yourself happy, do not allow anything to weigh you down. Know that whatever you are doing, if you are not successful, if it doesn’t come the way you want it, just have in mind that one day everything is going to take shape. Be positive, be determined, persevere, persist, do not give up. Don't give up. That is the message: don't give up.’

Ellz

As I sit and talk with Ellz in her kitchen, Rose is standing behind me on the sofa, enthusiastically doing my hair, using a playing card as a brush. I talk with Ellz about The Cook Up, the pandemic was the first time she used a food bank.

‘I started struggling through lockdown with my bills and housing conditions, and with counsellors not listening to me when repairs were needed in the house. I’ve ended up spending more on fixing things and on gas and electric.’

‘We’re just going through a little struggle right now. And for me, I go to the food bank for the sake of my child, she still needs to have little snacks here and there. Food and gas prices are going up, so this allows me just to have a bit more in my house to be able to feed her, because Universal Credit is only giving me a certain amount. Financially, it’s been helping until I find a suitable job, and I have tried, I just haven’t been quite successful yet in finding one I can fit around a childcare schedule. Everyone struggles, we all have our little moments where we need help’

‘When people look at this picture, I want them to remember to enjoy every moment you can, especially with the ones you love.’

Insaf

The first time I met Insaf outside of The Cook Up was at the park. She had some bread with her that she’d just picked up and some small cucumbers her friend had grown and given to her. Insaf insisted on giving me the cucumbers, she wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I really tried. Insaf is a regular volunteer and when we’re at The Cook Up she always brings me little bits of food; she cares so deeply for people. The last time we were at this park we sat down at a bench near some water where there were ducks. She used some of the bread she had and started feeding them. And then she tore up another loaf and then another to the point the ducks were no longer interested, it was the first time I have ever seen a duck turn down bread! She later explained to me that feeding ducks makes her so happy because it reminds her of her Dad, because it was something she used to do with him, and he passed away a couple of years ago from covid.

Insaf had to suddenly leave her home during lockdown after experiencing domestic violence. She is currently homeless and staying in the same hostel Stella was just moved from. Her health has suffered hugely since being moved there two years ago; her body can’t tolerate the food that is given out and she has no access to a kitchen. She struggles with stomach pains and has lost five teeth, unable to access funds for dental care. It isn’t just the food, the environment also causes her a great deal of stress.

We’re sitting at the same bench now, prints all over the table that keep getting blown off.

‘I am happy you show me my picture, I would like you to take more photos, I haven’t got pictures you see, in my life I have no pictures’

Thank you for reading

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