Charlie Clift documents how vital food banks have been during the pandemic

When coronavirus hit the UK and we finally went into lockdown, photographer Charlie Clift found his regular work at a standstill. “I couldn’t sit still and do nothing. I started thinking about how I could use my photography for good,” says Clift. “I started volunteering at the food bank near my home, the South London Food Bank Warehouse.”

While there, Clift witnessed the huge amounts of food coming and going, with the warehouse sending over a ton of food every day. “People who had been there longer told me about the massive increase in demand they had experienced since the virus hit – in some cases the stock they would usually need for a month was now disappearing in only one week. For many people, simply having enough to eat had become a harsh reality,” explains the photographer.

All Images: Food Bank by Charlie Clift

Clift wanted to shine a light on what he saw while volunteering and so began photographing the food bank he worked at, which was a local church in Streatham converted into a warehouse. “Donations arrive, are sorted, repackaged and then delivered throughout South London. It is run by around 80 volunteers supervised by a few staff members,” says Clift.

The Food Bank series also captures the Bonny Downs Food Bank in East Ham, which he found out about through his agent, who had volunteered there during the pandemic. “Bonny Downs has taken a different approach to dealing with the virus, keeping his food bank service open so he can continue to support the large homeless community in the area,” says Clift. “I traveled there to meet some of the volunteers and the people they were helping.”

For Clift, it was important to not only capture the food banks themselves, but also to tell the stories of the people receiving the food parcels and using the walk-in service. “I hope the pictures are honest – I wanted to show the situation for what it really is. I mainly used the light I found on location, embracing the feeling of every place I was in: the beams falling through the windows of the church in the South London warehouse and the harsh ceiling lights of the Bonny Downs community centre,” Clift explains. “Focusing my camera on a bag of pasta or a jar of mayonnaise at aside from the portraits, i aim to make you realize that people struggle to get even the most basic products. Place that image next to a powerful portrait and the problem becomes hard to ignore.

The portraits are a mix of people who agreed to pose for Clift (from a distance of course) and people he met at the food bank. The range of people they met was varied, but all had suffered hardships and been affected by the pandemic in different ways. For example, Clift mentions Anna, whom he met through the south London warehouse. She is a skilled healthcare worker for a private company whose genetic condition means she is considered vulnerable and can no longer see patients face to face. “Her income almost disappeared overnight when she suddenly found herself on statutory sick pay,” says Clift. “She only receives £95.85 a week and cannot cover all her living costs. The food bank has been vital for her.

Likewise at Bonny Downs, in a single day, Clift heard many difficult stories. “Maruf and his family have no recourse to public funds. They cannot work and cannot claim benefits due to their visa situation. I met Jade, who is homeless because she had to flee an abusive relationship. I have met many people with precarious jobs who lost their income overnight as much of the economy shut down,” says Clift.

“But I’ve also seen the love and the community, and heard the positive stories of people who have changed their lives. Like Paddy, who was homeless and struggling. Then Bonny Downs Center helped him and he s got back on his feet – he now works in the same center to help others. There are real heroes there, who give so much of their time to help people.

These glimmers of hope and optimism are what make Clift’s series so compelling and the whole experience was a learning curve for the photographer. “I learned a lot about my community. It was great meeting the other volunteers, chatting as we moved cans of beans around the warehouse,” he says. “I’ve learned that people want to be involved in their community, are happy to help others, and like to be busy and helpful.

Before volunteering, Clift, like many of us, didn’t realize how many people were struggling. “When I first arrived and was stacking shelves I couldn’t believe the giant piles of beans they had in the warehouse, then I came back a week later and they were all gone, the shelves were totally empty. That’s when the ladder hit me,” Clift says.

Her hope for the series is to raise awareness and encourage those who can to donate and help their community. “You can donate money online to Trussel Trust, or leave extra items in your supermarket drop box,” says Clift. “Finally, if you want to get more involved, then do it. Volunteering is incredibly rewarding and really makes a difference.

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