Nowadays, if a school teacher insisted on taking lots of unofficial photographs of all the kids at school he would (at best) be looked on with some suspicion. This hasn’t always been the case though – thank goodness – let me introduce you to George Plemper.
To the south east of London lies the new town of Thamesmead – built on reclaimed marshland, it consists of a huge, brutalist sink-estate, created to house the working-classes (if you’re UK-based and have ever watched ‘Misfits‘ on E4 – this is set in Thamesmead). This experiment in social housing meant that it was a community in isolation, even though they were just a few miles from London – the Riverside School must have been one of the few social hubs available there.
At this school is George – a young teacher. It’s 1978 and he’s got his first job teaching science. He introduces photography as a way of engaging with pupils and demonstrating ideas – and at the same time takes portraits of the children.
For a good 30 years the photos followed George through various house moves, mouldering in carrier bags. Then, with the emergence of photo-sharing websites and an urge to make available his social record of a now by-gone era, he uploaded all these wonderful faces to flickr for us all to see.
I wish I could put my finger on what makes these images so totally amazing. It’s simply incredible looking at those teenage faces full of hope, happiness, sadness, worry, joy and puzzlement – they are haunting and wonderful.
Having our photos taken is a common, almost daily occurrence for us nowadays – back then though, to have a formal photograph taken which wasn’t for a special occasion must have been very much out of the ordinary – which is one of the reasons these vignettes of everyday teenage life seem so emotive, so very compelling.
When I look at them I feel we haven’t changed at all and at the same time are so totally, totally different. And it’s all there to see in black and white. An amazing legacy. Thank you George!
All photographs in this article are © George Plemper
Check out George Plemper’s flickr photostream where you can see the full collection of Thamesmead photos – many of the images have details about who is in the photo and why it was taken and some of the the children in the photos have recognised themselves and left comments!