Tiger Bay portraits left unidentified for 50 years will ‘come to life’ in new dramas

Image: (from left to right) Danielle Fahiya, Maeva and Hannah Lewis; Image credit: Fin Kennedy

Writers worked with families in Butetown to breathe new life into this forgotten piece of history

A COLLECTION of unidentified portraits of Tiger Bay residents captured more than 100 years ago has been transformed into six audio dramas which reimagine the moments these portraits were taken.

The dramas were produced by Applied Stories and written by Danielle Fahiya and Kyle Lima, who both have personal connections to Butetown. 

From May to Etta with Love is set to launch on Wednesday, November 29, before the dramas are put on display at Glamorgan Archives. They are based on six photos from a collection of portraits by Fred Petersen, held by the Glamorgan Archives since the 1970s. Petersen was a Danish tattoo artist and portrait artist in the 1910s and 1920s who worked from his studio on 232 Bute Street. 

His portraits depict middle-class black and mixed race families and children from the Tiger Bay area. Despite numerous call-outs over the last 50 years, all but one of the portraits remains unidentified. 

Applied Stories, a company which produces place-based audio drama, worked on a commission from The National Archives to reimagine the history of Fred Petersen’s unidentified subjects. 

Unidentified subject: Fred Petersen, Glamorgan Archives

A mixed cast of community and professional actors from across Butetown and Cardiff city were brought onto the project  — including three-year-old Maeva Lewis.

“We had a lovely weekend with different families and working with young, non-professional actors in the area,” Fin Kennedy, artistic director of Applied Stories toldThe Cardiffian. 

“All the parents were saying thank you for doing this because it’s still not a widely known history. And we were doing it in the spirit of celebration.”

Danielle Fahiya, who previously worked on the BBC podcast series Mattan: Injustice of a Hanged Man, highlighted the unique insight these portraits give into the personal lives of Butetown residents over 100 years ago: “It’s a time and era that isn’t really spoken about in the area,” she said.

“Obviously back then, having a portrait done was quite a prestigious thing, it would probably be a week’s worth of wages.

“I was definitely inspired by these people coming and dressing in their Sunday best… we definitely wanted it to be positive. Over its history, the area has had many negative portrayals in the media. So it was important for me for these stories to be positive stories for the next generation. 

“I think what we’re doing is creating a time capsule. These stories, these audio portrayals will be in the archives for the next hundred years or so and people can come in and listen.” 

Unidentified subjects: Fred Petersen, Glamorgan Archives

The audio dramas take place in the reimagined studio of Fred Petersen on 232 Bute Street, and are staged as five-minute conversations between the subjects and the photographer. 

A second leg of the project is also in the works. Applied Stories will be taking the portraits of some of the young actors and families featured in From May to Etta with Love, and record them answering questions from Fred Petersen.

“So it sounds like the modern day people are also in conversation with Fred Petersen while they are having their portraits taken. And we will submit the new portraits to the archives,” Fin Kennedy added.

“Only this time, the portraits won’t be lost to history.”

For more information about the project, see the Applied Stories website here.