Grenfell one year on: powerful black-and-white images show community ‘united’ in the weeks after the tragedy

A photographer who lived metres from Grenfell Tower and spent three weeks documenting the fire today tells of the incredible spirit of unity one year after the tragedy which claimed 72 lives. 

Parveen Ali, 36, lived on Queensdale Crescent, just down the road from the site of the fire, and immediately rushed to help the community when it was struck by the tragedy in June last year.

She took a series of powerful black-and-white photographs documenting the people who descended on the area to offer help.

One year on, she has published her moving photos which, she says, display the “best of British” society uniting in the wake of a horrific event.

Ms Ali said the first she heard about the fire was in the morning of June 14 when news sites were reporting the horrific events that had unfolded in the early hours.  

Donations: Collections build at St Clement church near the site of the fire (Parveen Ali)

“I thought ‘is this a dream’? It looked like a dream,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I got dressed and went to help and I could see the tower – with this thick, dark smoke – and police, the paramedics and the families… families just crying their eyes out. I saw young girls saying ‘my friend has died in there’ and screaming. It was quite a lot to take in. I felt helpless.

“The first day it was the most traumatic because there was so much going on until – so much happened so quickly in that day that it was like a year in one day.

“In every direction I was looking something was happening, something major going on. Arguments or conflict or people frightened or people crying, people screaming up at the building, people putting notices on cars saying ‘this man have you seen him he is missing’.”

Blaze: Firefighters spray water onto the Grenfell Tower block in the hours following the fire (REUTERS)

She immediately began helping with the relief effort by offering clothing, water and acting as a translator for some of the older members of the community for whom English was not their first language.

Grenfell Tower fire: One year on

After a few hours Ms Ali went back to her flat to retrieve her camera and begin taking photos.

“I felt that it was important for me to document this because it was such a tragic incident,” she said. “And, at that point, I didn’t know what was happening and why it was on fire so I thought they might be useful for someone at some point along the line.

Volunteers: Helpers handing out water to locals (Parveen Ali)

“Every opportunity I got I was taking pictures because it was so important it was part of what was happening and I also felt as an artist it is my own way of coping.”

The student, who moved down to London from Lancashire for work in 2010, first began photography as a means of coping with her depression three years ago. 

Since then she has focussed primarily on social and political issues and, before the Grenfell tragedy struck her neighbourhood, had travelled to Calais to take pictures of the refugee camp.

Kensington: Shocked residents gather close to the building (Parveen Ali)

Her candid images taken in the hours after the fire show people taking collections of donations sent to the survivors of the fire, community members gathered together near the tower and volunteers joining together to get food. 

Ms Ali said her favourite images are one depicting four Muslim women holding boxes of donations and another showing all the boxes lined up outside St Clement church. 

Grenfell Tower and London landmarks illuminated on anniversary

“I had never seen so many donations in such a small place and so many people,” she explained. “If you look at that the picture there is every nationality there and every age group.

Community: This is Parveen’s favourite image because she said she find the unity ‘beautiful’ (Parveen Ali)

“I just think it is very beautiful. When I look at these pictures they make me smile. When I think of Grenfell I could sit here for ages and feel so low but when I look at those photographs I find some form of healing.”

Seventy-two people died as a direct result of the fire and, 12 months on, the community is only just beginning to come to terms with the devastation caused. But Ms Ali hopes her images can bring about a sense of hope in the trauma. 

“Being British myself there is so much negativity about racism and Brexit and, in a way, this was very British – everyone coming together,” she said. “I felt like it was Britain at its best – like: ‘Forget our differences, this is a tragedy, let’s get on with it and help each other.’”

Boxes of donations are stacked up (Parveen Ali)

The photographer has scores more pictures she took in the three weeks after the fire, but has chosen to only publish a select few now that, she feels, will provide comfort to the wounded community.

“There are other photos as well but they are quite harrowing images they are not the community side of it I wanted to show,” she said. “As a whole collective I am going to do that later on next year – it is too raw to be showing images like that with the inquiry going on. 

“I want to focus on something positive and maybe it will give somebody some hope because the community was amazing – it came together beautifully and differences were put aside.

“Nobody was bothered about where you were from, nobody cared about what religion you are – it didn’t matter it was all about ‘you’re here and you’re here to help and we are as one’.”

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