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JJ Waller in front of his photographic installation at Fat Sue’s Corner Shop in Bulverhythe Road. Photograph © Erica Smith

Fat Sue’s gets a JJ Waller make-over

Whilst the DFL Facebook page might be all of a flutter about whether Waitrose is moving to Hastings, JJ Waller has his heart set on a very different consumer outlet. Erica Smith visited Fat Sue’s Cornershop in Bulverhythe Road to see what documentary photographer JJ Waller has been up to in West St Leonards.

Bulverhythe Road feels like it’s never quite moved on from the 1960s. There’s something reassuring about that. I sit in my car waiting for JJ Waller to arrive and drinking my un-branded bottle of Summer Fruits drink (50p) and salt and vinegar snacks (also 50p) – cash only – from Fat Sue’s. The day is sunny, like it always was in the 1960s, and I watch two school kids at the edge of the Combe Haven stream kiss like Covid hasn’t been invented. In the short time it takes me to drink my bottle of pop, several people have been in and out of Fat Sue’s – it’s a hive of activity in a sleepy street.

JJ Waller has been documenting St Leonards since 2008. The fact that he doesn’t live in St Leonards but visits regularly perhaps makes him more aware of how the area has morphed. He isn’t sentimental about how the town changes, but he has a keen eye for our local street-style and what stays and what gets reinvented. He has been busy photographing the St Leonards community through lockdown, but his latest project is an intervention with a cornershop.

It would be easy to walk past Fat Sue’s and not notice any major difference, but look closely and alongside the colourful posters fly-pasted to the exterior, there are now a series of black and white prints. The top windows of the shop front have more black and white imagery pasted on to the inside of the window panes. And if you look at the produce for sale in the shop window, you’ll be in for a surprise – and you might even spot yourself in one of the images!

These posters aren’t quite what they seem at first glance. © JJ Waller

Look closely at the front window and you’ll spot that the commodities on sale have unusual branding. © JJ Waller

So, in a town full of galleries, why choose a cornershop in a forgotten street to host your exhibition? JJ Waller says: “Fat Sue’s is one of the most enduring and admired local landmarks in St Leonards” – it is also a personal favourite.

Owner, Sue Woods, has a few of JJ Waller’s books and features in two of them. Sue and the shop were also recently in a piece that Waller made about Lockdown with BBC South Today news.

JJ is keen to stress the work is only paper and paste and not permanent in any way. He says, “It is a particularly interesting time to make a piece of work like this with so many real changes happening in St Leonards. I expect the installation to raise some debate over the issues of regeneration and gentrification and for some there will even be debate that the work itself  interrupts the integrity of the shop”.  There’s also an element of irony with  some of the pictures used in the work featuring both people and places that have now disappeared from the St Leonards landscape.

The installation is not intended to be permanent. Waller says, “it will be interesting to watch the piece weather and blend into the shopfront. I am very happy that for the time it is on display it will become part of the history of such a unique shop.”

As we (hopefully) reach the end of our second lockdown spring, I thoroughly recommend a visit to Fat Sue’s. JJ Waller’s gentle intervention with the shop front has made this special corner of St Leonards even more precious.

Fat Sue’s is at 51 Bulverhythe Road, St Leonards-on-Sea TN38 8AD

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Posted 19:52 Wednesday, May 5, 2021 In: Photography

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