Hackney People: Zed Nelson

Award-winning photographer Zed Nelson has documented the intense period of change in Hackney in the last few years

"I WASTED a good couple of years just doing nothing and being a wastrel,” says award-winning photographer Zed Nelson. Adding: “I left school with very low ambitions and hung around riding a motorbike, doing mundane jobs and being an idiot.”

Young Zed had arrived in the UK at the age of four, after his family were forced to flee Idi Amin’s brutal regime in Uganda. They moved to Hackney, where the photographer still lives, and he had the ‘light-bulb moment’ that rescued him. He says: “I suddenly thought, I’ve got to do something with my life.”

He retook his A-levels and did a course in ‘photography as a fine art’ at the Polytechnic of Central London, working with a newly discovered fervour. While there, he went back to Uganda. It was to spark his second ‘light bulb moment’.

He says: “I went to photograph this forgotten massacre. While I was out there, I found the political and documentary focus of my work. I knew my photography was going to be driven by storytelling.”

So he began going to magazines and newspapers. He says: “I was pitching ideas and getting lots of rejections, until finally someone said ‘how much would it cost to do this?’”

From then on, his work shone a light on some of the most troubled areas of the world. In 1992, he travelled to Somalia to document the civil war and subsequent famine. He says: “I was really unprepared for what I saw. The famine had barely been reported. People were dying of hunger. The guns that had been used in the civil war had been pouring in from the developing world: the US and Russia. It was like a crash course in global politics.”

It was while working in Afghanistan that the impact of those guns really hit home. He says: “I was in a car when it was ambushed in a machine gun attack. My interpreter was hit in the neck. It was terrifying.”

Once home, he decided to shift his focus towards the countries that manufacture the weapons. His first book ‘Gun Nation’ was the result, a disturbing look at America’s deadly love affair with guns (pictured above). It won five major international awards and, says Nelson, ‘really ruffled feathers in the States’.

His next project revolved around the beauty industry which was exporting ‘a very Western idea of what beauty should look like. Packaging and then selling that ideal around the globe’.

The resulting book ‘Love Me’ (pictured above) was published in 2010 and received First Prize in the 2010 Pictures of the Year International Awards.

Then, something happened: Nelson got tired of travelling. So he began wandering Hackney, documenting its gentrification, what he calls ‘the intense period of change that was happening from around 2011’.

In 2014, the project was turned into a book ‘Portrait of Hackney’, published by Hoxton Mini Press. His travelling days, however, are not over and he has just finished a film ‘Gun Nation’ in which he returns to America and interviews the people he photographed back in 2000.

“I realised that half a million people had been killed by guns inside the USA since I’d last been there. That’s more than have died in all the wars since World War Two.” 

Zed Nelson’s politicisation shows no signs of slowing, after all.