“IT’S NOT me, it’s my shadow!” Alford Gardner says with a chuckle, looking across the OXO gallery in London at a large photograph of himself. In it he wears an azure shirt and stands in front of a studio backdrop that is a brighter blue than a British sky could ever be. Mr Gardner is 92 years old, laughs often, and is quick to say that he has enjoyed his life, “every day of it”. Born in Jamaica, he served as a Royal Air Force motor mechanic before moving to England on the HMT Empire Windrush. Around 800 Caribbean migrants made the trip on that boat; he is one of only 12 still alive. “I wasn’t expecting to live here this long,” he says. “The plan was to come here, work hard, go back home. But out here everything changed within a couple of years.” 

With this year marking 70 years since the Windrush’s arrival at the docks in Tilbury—and with the news of the Home Office’s abysmal treatment of Caribbean migrants still raw and unresolved—Jim Grover, the documentarian who took Mr Gardner’s picture, unsurprisingly feels he is “capturing living history”. Mr Grover, a white English resident of south London, spent the past year immersed in his local Caribbean community taking photographs. A recent show of his work attracted nearly 13,000 visitors; there are plans for it to tour the country and perhaps to take it to Jamaica. A book is due to be published later in the year.

Each image is a tender snapshot into lives of which Mr Grover would never normally have been a part. One sequence shows a Friday night at Hermine Grocia’s “Open House” family dinner, where four generations gather together to feast on jerk chicken and fried plantain. (Twenty-one people turned up on this occasion, but “the night can get as big as it wants,” she says.) Another group of pictures shows senior citizens at a Christmas party in the West Indian Association of Service Personnel club in Clapham, the men in their “felts” (fedoras) and the women in their floral frocks, all swaying and dancing to reggae and calypso music. “Our generation...we’re rocking our bodies in our chairs,” says Peter “Bockie” Allen, a stylishly dressed patron of another club in Wandsworth, who moved to London in 1968.

Some of the most striking pictures are of the front rooms of migrants’ new English homes. Many matriarchs created a sacred kind of space, a place where a family’s story was told via artfully arranged bric-a-brac. These were domestic areas for admiring not inhabiting, filled with artificial gerberas, souvenirs from the seaside, brass candelabras, porcelain figurines, swirling plush carpets and crochet doilies, all surrounded by bewilderingly patterned wallpaper. Portraits are arranged in maximalist splendour atop the mantelpiece.

Many have the distinctive look of the work of Harry Jacobs, once the photographer of choice for the Caribbean community in Brixton; a display of his work is on show at Lambeth Town Hall. Jacobs, a young Londoner from a Jewish family, had moved to the area with his mother after the second world war. Bored by the jewellery shop he ran, he bought a camera and started knocking on doors, offering to take photographs.

Over the next 35 years, posing for a portrait for Jacobs became a rite of passage. His shop-front studio had a backdrop that never changed, though sometimes he said it was Tahiti, sometimes it was the South Pacific. People would come in their best dresses, wearing suits or holding new babies, and have their picture taken by the basket of fake flowers. They’d leave with an object that could be sent back home to show that things were going well. As Gerald Jacobs, the photographer’s son, recalls: “It was as a remarkable place, his studio, like a community centre...I think of it now, perhaps rather bookishly, as being lit by Caribbean sunshine.”

The intimacy of these two exhibitions reflects what V.S. Naipaul, a writer born in Trinidad, calls “the human story” of Caribbean migration to Britain. A third exhibition, on show at the British Library, adds historical texture to the tale. It reveals the rich artistic, academic and literary impact of the people who moved to England from the Caribbean, and powerfully conveys the joys and the struggles of their lives. “There is excitement in every object,” says Colin Prescod, chair of the Institute of Race Relations and an advisor to the curators. “Because every object is also a journey.”

On show are things like the manuscript of “Small Island”, Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel which told the story of the post-war Caribbean migrant experience, alongside a patterned shirt which her father, Winston Levy, a passenger on the Windrush, packed in his suitcase. The poetry of Una Marson, the first black female producer at the BBC, is on display. An archival film plays on repeat featuring Lord Kitchener, “the king of Calypso” from Trinidad, singing “London is the place for me” from the deck of the boat he arrived on.

The exhibition also reflects on the injustices suffered by the black British community. A handwritten manuscript of “What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us”, a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, devastates. He wrote it in 1993 as part of a campaign to find the gang of five racist white youths who stabbed 18-year-old Lawrence to death as he waited for the bus. (Though the suspects were known, it was not until 2012 that two men were found guilty of his murder and sentenced.) The poem shares the room with bright orange pocket-sized “Rights Cards” from the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1980s, when the Metropolitan Police’s introduction of “stop and search” led to increased harassment of anyone who wasn’t white.

In “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain”, Clair Wills writes that the “public history” of British immigration tends to “overshadow what migration might actually have felt like for those concerned”. The personal and the everyday get lost, while official versions of history are written by those who hold more power. “Institutions have a certain type of history,” said one of the curators at the British Library. “Curators need to consciously attempt to break down the walls. Open up who comes here and whose stories get told.” These three shows help to redress that imbalance. They give insight into what migration actually felt like for the “Windrush generation” and tell the stories—both ordinary and extraordinary—about what it feels like to live in Britain now.

“A Snapshot of Brixton: Harry Jacobs and the Empire Windrush” is showing at Lambeth Town Hall until July 6th

“Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land” is showing at the British Library until October 21st

“Windrush: Portrait of a Generation” showed at the OXO Gallery