Brick Lane People is a new photography book by Syl Ojalla. Unsurprisingly, it’s a collection of portraits taken along Brick Lane, documenting the “human kaleidoscope” Syl encountered there on various expeditions.

Syl started out with a Polaroid camera as a child, transfixed by being able to capture and share precious moments, but this interest was left behind in childhood. After a successful but unhappy stint as a salesperson ended abruptly, Syl was able to get back into photography, and delve into the creative expression he felt was lacking from his previous work.

This was when the outings to Brick Lane began.


The introduction tells us more about what drew him there, and what it means to him. In case you weren’t aware of its history, as Syl explains, the place “has been in a constant state of flux for centuries”, where “the newcomers come when the city doesn’t want them”. From French Huguenot refugees, to Jewish and Bengali migrants – each successive group has left its mark on the area, and this evolution continues today.

While Brick Lane has seen more than its fair share of difficulties – including the current gradual gentrification – it’s still an enigmatic and diverse place, which is reflected in this book’s selection of portraits.

There’s a pretty big selection of street photography shots and portraits, from focusing close up on individuals, who could be anywhere, to capturing the wider scene and including recognisable shops or artwork. Some of these have already changed since publication.


It does give an accurate everyday representation of the people of Brick Lane, capturing eccentric lurkers and tradespeople to the masses of tourists and local residents. But the best images are also those that are the hardest to take, the close up candids, snatching relaxed moments.

The book slots in positive quotes along the way – including Friedrich Nietzsche, Confucius and John Lennon – about accepting and promoting individuality, reflecting what Syl says he aimed to do at the beginning of the book. But more on that in a bit.

Made in Shoreditch spoke to Syl to find out a bit more about what drives his photographic style and the trips down Brick Lane.

How did you get into street photography? I think my curiosity about people led to street photography. I’ve always had many questions about who, what and why we are. I can’t help but wonder what is behind our appearance and sometimes I guess that’s what I’m actually trying to capture in my pictures. This series is very different to what I do day-to-day photography wise. The project started as something that interested me personally and was never meant to be a book – it was purely for the enjoyment it gave me.

I have always loved pictures from a young age. It wasn’t until I lost my job a few years ago I picked up my camera again. It was my escape  and this is where the escape took me! Life, hey.
What drew you to Brick Lane? I love the diversity of Brick Lane. For someone like me it’s a visual feast! It draws in a real mix of people which I like. I was like a kid in a candy shop the first time I visited!
Do you have a favourite image from the book? I do have a favourite image. Met a chap called Marcus from one of the vintage clothing stalls during one of my many visits who took quite a lot of persuading before he’d let me take his pic! A great character and a genuinely lovely guy with an awesome sense of style. He is very unique and had a great story to tell.
Was there a moment that made you decide to make this book? The book just happened. Can’t explain it. Didn’t go out with the intention of creating a book – far from it! It would be a shame not to share and I’m looking forward to picking it up in 20 years time and seeing the changes.
Did you have any difficulties collecting the portraits? Never found approaching strangers too difficult (probably due to my sales background). Everyone was warm, open and friendly. Brick Lane People!
Who and what inspires you? I enjoy photography by individuals such as Ellen Von Unwerth, Man Ray and Sally Mann, but it’s probably surreal art and collage which really excites me. Love Hannah Hoch’s work and she’s probably my fave artist. Influences can come from many things and it’s mostly my own life experiences I rely upon.
What made you decide to include the quotes? Yes, the quotes. I wanted something that would bring the book together and I think they do. Society often saddens me and when I see real beauty in an area like Brick Lane, it’s sometimes hard to understand how there can be so much tension around issues like immigration, race, religion and culture in our society. Is it not beautiful to see and experience such diversity in one place? How awful would the world be if we were all the same? I think the quotes reinforce what the book is about.
Where would you go if you could repeat this series anywhere else?  Shoreditch is probably the obvious place but I don’t like being obvious. Let me think…
Any upcoming projects? I’m working on a couple of new projects at the moment, but it’s early days. Seem to be leaning towards photography projects with a social aspect. Watch this space!