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  • Writer's picturesarahhawley

Not Your Average Tourist Snapshots - Shad Thames

The best part about travelling back to a place where you used to live, is that you know how the locals live, where they go and who to talk to in order to find out about the best that the city has to offer. I also highly recommend aimlessly wandering off the beaten path to discover a part of the city that is overlooked and out shined by the main attractions (provided that it is safe to do so). These places can become excellent discoveries and lead to amazing experiences, often with little to no crowds because they are not on the radar of tourists. They create wonderful memories of your trip that I personally, would value much more than any store bought souvenir.  Never underestimate the importance of wandering.

As a photographer, a bonus to wandering means that you can get photos that have a different perspective or viewpoint of the city or an iconic landmark. In doing this, you are creating images that are not your average tourist snapshot. This adds an interesting element to your photography that gives your images that extra something special, and this is what will draw people to your work. You are showing the same familiar subject in a very different way and as we all know, that is what true artists do – they see the world differently and share this perspective with others through their artwork.

Walking Through Shad Thames

So what am I talking about? The area surrounding Tower Bridge in London, England is the site of many attractions. There is of course Tower Bridge over the River Thames, the HMS Belfast, City Hall, the Tower of London, the Shard, Borough Market is nearby and so much more. It can be a very high traffic area. Years ago when I lived in London, I discovered an interesting street here, by simply wandering along the Thames. Now (many years later), I wandered back down the Thames to this place, which today is a popular spot for Instagram worthy pics due to its cobblestone streets and the industrial architecture. I am talking about Shad Thames in South East London (SE1). As I said, it is now a popular place to come for photos to post on social media, but if you go there at off-peak times like early in the morning or later in the day, there will be little to no people around.

Shooting in London, particularly in popular spots like this one, created a great exercise and learning opportunity that forced me to broaden my preferred method of shooting.  It was a way for me to work outside the box (and my comfort zone). Anyone who knows me and is familiar with my photography, will know that I don’t like to shoot images with people in my work – I found that to be very difficult to do in a city with millions of people in it. Trying to do this in the streets of London was damn near impossible. So I had to embrace it, go with the flow, and I learned to be ok with it and to work within parameters that were out of my control. I even grew to like some of my images with people or a person in them. Sometimes the inclusion of people helped to show the scale of the subject I was taking a photo of, or in capturing a moment. Shad Thames was a great place to have a person or two in your images as it helps to show the size of the buildings in relation to the size of a person. I also absolutely loved the way the light landed on the buildings and the people in this space at that particular time of day (late morning).

So what exactly is this place? Shad Thames is located in the Victorian Warehouse District in South East London and these buildings used to be warehouses that led to Butler’s Wharf. Completed in 1873, the warehouses were used to store dry goods that were shipped into the city from all over the world. These goods included fruit, grain, sugar, coffee, tea, and spices. The overhead walkways that join the buildings were actually used to roll barrels from one warehouse to another, making the task of unloading ships a bit easier. This location was a natural place for ships to dock and unload these exotic goods, because it’s within the Pool of London, which is the deep, still stretch of water between London Bridge and Rotherhithe (on the Thames), making it ideal for docking ships. In addition to this, there was an increasing development of London’s East End at the time, which led to the development of one of London’s most iconic landmarks: Tower Bridge. So Shad Thames, historically speaking, is really quite an important landmark in its own right.

Unfortunately, Shad Thames ended up like many other industrial centres within London. As the world changed over time, Shad Thames fell victim to a number of obstacles such as river congestion, and the changing nature of global trade, shipping and storage. The last warehouses were closed in 1972, and in the 1980s plans to redevelop the area with luxury apartments, shops, and restaurants were in the works. This is pretty much the way Shad Thames is today and those metal overhead walkways now serve as balconies for the luxury flats.

This is a perfect example of why I love travelling so much. It opens up opportunities to learn the history about a place and uncover hidden gems for you to discover. Knowing the story of a place or subject can add depth to your photography and helps you to find inspiration and guidance to make new work.

Wandering along the Thames in this area near Tower Bridge, I also discovered many other unusual locations to photograph other landmarks or parts of the city from interesting perspectives. This gave me a unique portfolio of images that captured the city as I saw it. For me, it wasn’t the famous landmarks that drew me to take these photos, it was the places I discovered along the way that made for an interesting image and a much better story worth sharing. I should also mention that in addition to taking photographs from unusual viewpoints, adding your own personal editing style during post processing will further distance your body of work from the "tourist snapshot" and make your own artistic eye much more apparent in the images you create.

The gallery below features some of the images taken in and around Shad Thames and Tower Bridge

For more information about the history of the shipping industry in London, I suggest visiting the Docklands Museum in East London

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