An East side story

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The Independent Culture
THE DOCKLANDS Light Railway, which swishes out from the City of London to East London's new Docklands developments, has been trying to persuade its passengers to call it the "D", which sounds kind of hip and New Yorkish. The passengers, though, most of whom are suited commuters, perversely insist on calling it the Toy Train, as it chugs along, all shiny, new, red and blue, ferrying them from one business centre to another, through the housing estates at the heart of the East End.

This month, photographer Anthony Lam is attempting to introduce the East End to the Toy Train users with an exhibition of striking black and white images of a group of Bangladeshi youths. The photographs are mounted in the train carriages, in spaces usually used for advertising, paid for by the London Arts Board, Autograph (the Associa-tion of Black Photographers) and the London Docklands Development Corporation. Aged between 16 and 20, the youths in the pictures are friends from the Shadwell area in Tower Hamlets, which has its own DLR station. "I wanted to use the pictures in the area where they'd been taken," says Lam. "Approaching Shadwell from the City, you can see the estate where these men live. On the train, people go from the City to Canary Wharf without even looking at the East End - there's no sense of what people are like.

"I used to be a youth worker," explains Lam, "and I was involved with the Bangladeshi community in Tower Ham-lets; that's how it came about. Instead of me approaching the group as a photographer, they were able to relate to me as being from the same area." He chose this particular group because "They're the first generation of British Bangladeshis to grow up here. There's always been a small community in London, but it grew in the Seventies after the war of independence in Bangladesh. They're very Bangladeshi - but also very East End in terms of relating to their environment, mimicking the same characteristics as black and white East End kids."

Most of the photographs were taken in the summer of 1993, but the whole project covers two years. "I spent a lot of time being with them, developed relationships with individuals, and through that I got to know the group and their friends," says Lam. The pictures show not only the dilapidated environment of the estates - concrete and graffiti - but also events such as raves and a Bangladeshi wedding, where the bridegroom is pictured stepping out of a vintage Rolls-Royce to visit the bride's family. According to Lam, "From 1989 to 1992 there was a burst of activity in Tower Hamlets, with young Bangladeshis organising raves in community centres. They were the first group to take influences from British culture to Bangladeshi culture."

Where are the subjects now? Of the group of 30 or so, Lam says some are working, some are not. "They were all young people with a sense that life's to be enjoyed. But they were trying to find their feet. Some were held back by racism, some because they were academic underachievers because of low standards in the area. Many were a bit lost."

Each of the images shown on the trains is captioned in English and Bengali, with a statement from the young men in the photographs. One of them says: "We're on the streets, winter, summer, snowing, spring. We're bored of it. At the end of the day we've got nothing to do. We've got to be on the streets."