New East Digital Archive

Brexit Britain: what is it like to be eastern European in the UK’s most Eurosceptic town?

23 June 2017

Today marks a year since Britain voted to leave the European Union. A year on and many of the questions laid bare by the referendum about Britain’s national identity and its future place in a globalised world remain. Amid the tensions over the vote, one small town came to the fore.

Boston, in Lincolnshire, registered the highest Leave vote in Britain, at 75.6 per cent. It has been dubbed “the capital of Brexit”.

But even before the referendum, Boston held a reputation as the UK’s most anti-EU town due to growing tensions about the increasing number of immigrants settling there from “new” EU countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

The town has the largest proportion of eastern Europeans in the country at over 10 per cent of Boston’s 65,000 population.

“It’s mostly Lithuanians, Latvians, Polish. Now I noticed, in the last several years, there are more communities from Romania and lately there’s been a lot of Bulgarian shops opening,” says photographer Deividas Buivydas.

Buivydas moved to the UK from Lithuania in 2010, aged 16. In 2012 he ended up in Lincolnshire after his mother relocated there.

“I was planning to work for a year then move to London. I worked in a laundry factory and had another stint taking out boxes from a truck. Then I was offered a place at a college,” Buivydas explains.

As a student, Buivydas spent his evenings working as a nightclub photographer. “Photography allowed me to get to know the community and what the town is all about.” He is currently coming to the end of a BA in Photography at the University of Westminster, London.

His graduate project F(L)IGHT is a portrait of Boston, seen through the eyes of an eastern European migrant. Buivydas started shooting the series in the spring of 2016, in the lead up to the referendum, returning to the town over the year.

The series gives a glimpse into the Baltic diaspora community with its butchers, bakers, hairdressers, nightclubs, schools and community centres. It also features latent reminders of home, such as the VIASAT satellite dish which is popular among immigrant households keen to tune into TV shows from eastern Europe.

“Some people like to show their identity through flags, others through UKIP posters,” Buivydas comments.

The photographer is not always interested in capturing the obvious: there are no scenes of confrontation in the series. Instead his images reveal the underlying tensions in the town that can bubble to the surface out of apparently trivial encounters, such as a harmless glance between strangers.

The backdrop to the series is the rise in reported race hate incidents that has taken place across Britain since the referendum. With Brexit looming, EU immigrants like Buivydas are increasingly uncertain about their future in the UK.

“I fear for my mum and what’s going to happen to her. Like a majority of immigrants in Boston, she doesn’t speak English. For the same reason as the others: they would like to learn the language but they have to work to support their families. Obviously the reaction from the locals can result in misunderstanding. You don’t want to integrate? You are ignorant? Well, maybe they don’t have the time or opportunity?”

The reaction to this series in his new hometown is one of suprise: “When I show people in London my photos they all say, ‘wow it doesn’t feel like England’. London has always been multicultural, it’s part of its history. But Boston is a small, historic market town. People who live in Boston have seen it change so rapidly, that’s why they are upset.”

Buivydas hopes to bring F(L)IGHT to Lithuania to provide a more nuanced picture of Brexit.

“This town has been called the capital of Brexit, but it’s never that black and white, it’s not that simple,” the photographer concludes.

F(L)IGHT is currently on display as part of the University of Westminster Undergraduate Photography Degree Show at The Old Truman Brewery in London until 26 June. Find more information here.

Text: Liza Premiyak
Image: Deividas Buivydas