At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Edward: I’m here today with Holly-Marie Cato, she’s an amazing photographer based in London. We’re going to talk to her today about street photography in London, how she got started, the current state of street photography—I’m sure you have a lot to say about that. And the little things relating to both the female and black experience of being a photographer, especially maybe a travel photographer around the world, how you are perceived.
Holly: Sounds great. Hi!
Edward: If you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the photography game?
Holly: Yeah, I mean I have a degree in architecture. I’m not officially an architect and, yeah, that was the plan. I think I wanted to be an architect since I was 7, but I think I always liked photography, it was definitely a hobby. I wasn’t any good at it but I certainly enjoyed it. It wasn’t until… I can’t even remember the year now—when were the Tottenham riots? 2013?
Holly: 2011. Yeah, wow. I kind of found myself in the middle of that and I was there before it turned into the riots. I was there when it was still a protest and it was just by chance. I was taking backstage photography with a little point and shoot that I didn’t really know how to use. It was the summer, I was back in London from uni so just one summer and there was a protest happening outside. I was taking pictures inside a theatre, came outside and was like, “What’s this?”
I was the only one with a camera so I started taking pictures, people were happy I was taking pictures because they thought it was important. It was just locals in the area and I had heard that a guy had been killed by the police and the family was never informed, I think they said he was armed but he wasn’t and then it was just the whole injustice of that. People came out and were protesting and I was taking pictures and then the protests just grew and grew to the point that it was maybe 30 or 50 people and then it turned into 60, then it turns into 100 and before you knew it, the whole of Tottenham High Road which is a big busy road, but the part where the police station was—this is in London, North London—got shut down because of people protesting.
It turned out that via social media it just gained traction and people we saying, “Come down, come down, show support.” I was unaware and to be honest it was a peaceful protest, but the family eventually left. Come the evening time, the sun had gone down, the family and friends and the people that were protesting actually did leave and another wave of people were there and they just weren’t using the same approach because at the end of the day their voices weren’t heard. The police didn’t even come out of the police station to talk to the family who were grieving the death of their family member. That’s not me making excuses, that’s just me saying that this is what happened from my eyes and my knowledge, but it just turned into something else and I was still taking pictures.
Edward: You not being a photographer at that time, what motivated you to stay when things got—or may have looked like they were about to get—violent?
Holly: Here’s the thing. I was still taking pictures inside this event. It was like backstage photography of actors getting ready. So I was taken pictures and intermittently I would go outside and see what was happening and I could see it change.
I remember, come nightfall, I saw people in balaclavas and people were creating Molotov cocktails and were throwing it and they were throwing rocks and I don’t know what got me to stay. To be honest, in a weird way it was scary but there was this adrenaline rush, I can’t explain it. I remember after the whole experience, I think that was the first time I really felt alive, you know? And I just felt like this was what I wanted to do.
A lot of people know what happened but houses got burnt down, shops got shut down, even the building that I was in people tried to set fire to it but it didn’t light up and people had turned up for the play that was happening and I think 500 people had to get evacuated by the police. We were being escorted out of a back door eventually and I just wanted to go off to where the riots were happening to take pictures and my mum was there and I went in the direction of where the riots were and she just grabbed my arm back and was like, “You’re crazy, you’re coming with us.”
A lot of the footage, parts of it you could tell when I was scared, I remember there was a time where we all got locked into the building and the caretaker had run off with the keys and I had to climb up the building but in parts that were having renovation work so it was completely black, there were rats running around, it was just gross. I remember getting onto this rooftop space and hanging off the side of it with my camera, really shaky taking footage but I’ve just never seen anything like it.
Edward: Do you still have that footage?
Holly: I do yeah, somewhere. It’s been archived but it’s there.
Edward: It’s funny you should say that because that seems like the first experience of photography that sent you on a certain path.
Holly: Yes, so that was the catalyst for me just thinking—I think this is what I want to do. But even then I didn’t voice that, I felt it and I knew it, and then I went back to university when the year started and I was doing that. Now in hindsight I think this was always going to happen because I would wake up before sunrise—I was studying in Leicester and Leicester is quite flat—and I would just walk in a direction to see what I could find to take pictures from somewhere at sunrise. This wasn’t even thinking about Instagram, this was on a little point and shoot DSLR, entry level that I didn’t even know how to use.
It was just that passion that was growing and then afterwards I did move back to London and even before that I had gone to New York for a month and I met people on Instagram and it was just this story about this passion and meeting other people who were also passionate about photography, but no one at the time was a photographer, they were all using their iPhones. I had recently got an iPhone, I was quite late to the whole Instagram game. I always felt kind of nerdy about it, it was my own private hobby which I couldn’t really talk to other people about because people were taking selfies on Instagram and I don’t want to do that. It’s like I instantly found that little nerdy group where it all made sense.
Edward: So you found this nerdy group in New York?
Holly: Yeah I shouldn’t call them a nerdy group. They were just passionate about it and it was just like—okay, we don’t have to hide this. Okay, this thing that I thought was nerdy was actually cool and they were cool people. So yeah the first people I met on this app were in New York.
Edward: I just want to say that being nerdy and cool are not mutually exclusive.
Edward: That act of social justice which was documenting the riots, that became your style in a way or did you draw more from the architecture?
Holly: I don’t know man. I need to start archiving stuff from my social media. The truth was, when I started, everybody was taking leading lines photos, that was just the thing in London. I don’t know if that’s how it started because I was in New York so I did have people in my shots but I came to London and everyone was taking photos of the tube when it was empty. I can’t remember who—because I would never show people my work—but I don’t know if it was my mum or a friend who said, “Oh yeah, look at her work” to somebody and I still don’t even remember who that somebody was. It was a guy that was on the street but clearly someone’s friend and he saw my images and he goes, “Oh, it’s all leading lines.” And I remember up until that point I felt it was pretty good and then I looked at it again and thought it was rubbish.
Edward: Sometimes it takes one person who’s not in the game and doesn’t know about compliments or insults to just look at your pictures and say something and it just blows your mind.
Holly: Oh my gosh, it was so good. It was like I opened my eyes for the first time again because that app was like an echo chamber.
Edward: You’d just been doing vanishing points like everyone else. Clean white and black buildings that somebody else built and I’m just taking pictures of it.
Holly: Yeah, so it was definitely architecture motivated to start off.
Edward: Okay. No, the very start with this documentation of the streets and probably one of the most important events in London in the last 20 years.
Holly: So can I go back because I feel like there’s a nice story. It involves you. How I met Vivien, because she kind of introduced me to that whole world of Instagram.
So I was in uni as I said, and I would be working on a Saturday on this project, deadlines coming, I haven’t slept in five years. Hashtag architecture student. Vivien, who goes by @vdubl is a practicing student architect. She was working for an amazing firm at the time. She must have seen me tag that—this is back in the day—followed and even then to me she was a big deal and I was like, “Oh my gosh,” and she must have written this encouraging message and she said something like, “Hang in there, I know the struggle but it will be worth it.” Or something like that. And then she followed me and then fast forward now, I’m in New York for a month, I saw on your post because I’d been following you, you said that your friend Vivien was coming to New York. I was just like, “Oh, Vivien!” I don’t know if DM was a thing then, it might been, or maybe I left a comment and I wrote, “I’m in New York, it would be good to meet up.” And she did, we met on the Brooklyn Bridge with two of her friends.
To be honest, when I told my friends that I was going to meet a person off the internet that I didn’t know in the middle of winter—it was like minus 10—on the Brooklyn Bridge and I don’t know where we’re going next. They were like, “You’re crazy, do not do it.” And I met her and she introduced me to so many cool people in New York, the people were just so nice. They offered to show me around. The whole thing was that she gave me a community when I didn’t have one in photography. So by the time I came back to London and I think my following had maybe doubled. I wondered if this existed in London.
I was following Emmanuel at the time, @ecolephoto, and his friend Rich said he was doing a meet and asked me to come and I didn’t even know on that day until years later, that that was worldwide Instameet. He had a smaller group and we all ended up being really good friends. Then I got to meet you, Jess, yeah I got to meet Jess. It was just a funny story because I’m telling your wife about how I met this girl called Vivien and how it was this guy called Ed who told me that she was coming over and she goes, “Oh yeah, that’s my husband.” The world is so small. Fast forward to us being in Hong Kong now, friends, on a podcast.