The Knowle West estate is a neighbourhood of around 12,000 residents, situated at the top of a hill that overlooks the south side of Bristol.
Created in the 1930s following slum clearance in the city centre, it exists as an in-between of sorts, where dense housing meets vast agricultural land. At its highest point, you can gaze over Bristol in its entirety.
Back in 2015, photographer Tommy Sussex began visiting the estate with the aim of documenting its story. Intrigued by its unique, geographical makeup – as well as the strong, identity of its residents – he soon found himself making regular trips, getting lost in its various back routes, alleys and side streets.
Quickly, it became apparent to Sussex that while Bristol was constantly changing, Knowle West was – like numerous other parts of cities across the UK – finding itself left behind. “Many residents suffered from ineffective public transport and felt trapped,” he recalls.
“[They] questioned the funding that was being put into the area and felt that other obvious aspects of the community were being ignored and needed further investment. I heard the phrase ‘on tap, not on top’ regarding government funding a handful of times.”
The result of Sussex’s journeys to and from the estate form What Takes Hold, a collection of images that capture the area’s distinctive character. While the looming spectre of gentrification haunts the project, rather than make this the centrepiece, Sussex instead turns his lens towards the spirit of the Knowle West residents: a close-knit group of people who care about their community – and are intent on protecting it.
In particular, Sussex became fascinated by Knowle West’s notorious matriarchal network, made up of heads of families, community leaders and colourful, outspoken women that were, as he terms it, “running the show”.
“One evening, I spent time playing bingo at Nover’s Social Club. The ladies sat in the main room catching up telling jokes and socialising, while the men sat in the bar next door drinking cider. These women were far from shy. Some of the jokes were too blue even for me – and I’m not prudish!”
Placing candid portraits alongside sweeping shots of the estate’s blend of both the urban and pastoral, What Takes Hold is an entangled portrait of the Bristol area. For Sussex, it’s a place he’s come to hold dear: a warm and welcoming community, full of figures unashamedly proud of where they’re from.