Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories

Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories
Elizabeth by JJ Keith Open Britain
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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.

Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories
Viveth by JJ Keith Open-Britain

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. Keith’s colour photographs are relaxed portraits, often taken within local communities or work environments, that affectionately capture the importance of connection and help tell their story. Keith’s seemingly easy ability to establish personal relationships with his subjects is distinct – resulting in a series of photographs that is at the same time authentic, heart-warming, and relatable.

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.

Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories
Osman by JJ Keith Open Britain

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 and although happy with the picture Osman’s story struck a particular chord. His father was welcomed to the UK when he fled Austria in the Second World war. So his journey of documenting first generation migrants began.

“Things happen. You just move to it. I’m a gambler,” she says, explaining why she’s here.

“Singing warms my heart…. It’s a spiritual thing…. If it comes, I have to get with it. I don’t have any shame in my game. I be on the platform. I be on the street. I be at home. I just sing. I be sleeping. I wake up in the morning with a song in my head… I’m like a Boom-Box.

Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories
Jama by JJ Keith Open Britain

Dr Jai Kumari Gir is a GP and gynaecologist. Born in 1934 in Hyderabad, India, she describes her childhood as “completely idyllic, a large family, lots of animals and exotic plants collected by my father.” A sign of things to come was when she delivered two of her own brothers. They called her ‘gypsy girl’ because of her lust for travel and soon it became clear she wanted to make a career for herself in England.Britain is a country of immigrants, she says. It always has been. It is what makes its culture and history rich. “There are very few families who can claim to be entirely English in their bloodline. No one owns this Earth, and everything is on loan. We should all be welcomed, wherever it is on the Earth, and the British have been rather wonderful at this.”

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. Later, in 2018, after a grey commute on the Central Line from Stratford to Queensway, Jama decided to reignite his passion for the power of ostentatious fashion. Now a mental health support worker, he recalls the moment he was given the job by his ‘Boss Lady’ straight away, after attending his interview in a rainbow-coloured suit.

Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories
Florent 2 by JJ-Keith Open Britain

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.” Florent currently works in fashion retail, something he is passionate about. In October 2022, he was contestant #12 at the 50th anniversary of “Alternative Miss World”. He said: ”I didn’t win, but I won the heart of the people!” On the third Thursday of each month, he runs the “Colour Walk” in Old Spitalfields Market, an event that brings creative people together to celebrate the love of dressing colourfully, whilst helping to support the market.

Dimitri Stefanov was born in Bulgaria, but in 2009 he moved to the UK to be with his friend, an antique lighting dealer. His innate talent was spotted five years later by an octogenarian premier artisan chandelier maker called Philip Turner, who took him under his wing – teaching him restoration, pinning and all the skills needed to create new and bring antique fittings back to life.

Photographer JJ Keith captures ordinary people with extraordinary stories
Dimitri by JJ Keith Open-Britain

Dimitri is now one of the most pre-eminent rock crystal chandelier specialists in the world. He counts many of the world’s wealthiest people as his clients including celebrities, royalty, Claridge’s, Annabel’s and Gaudi Museum, Barcelona. Umit Mesut Hasan shop is like a museum of a bygone era, and he is popular with journalists and filmmakers alike, many of whom are very famous. Mr. Analogue: the radio is always on, and he is surrounded by vinyls, VHS tapes and reels of celluloid for sale. He has no mobile phone or computer, and he only accepts cash. The ultimate surprise though is the cinema at the back. He doesn’t hate digital, it’s just “not his thing.”

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.

©2023 JJ Keith