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These photographs capture the fading world of Smithfield's midnight meat market

Photographer Orlando Gili documents the last generation of butchers working on this historic central London site

A butcher standing next to meat
Photograph: Orlando Gili
Photograph: Orlando Gili
Written by
Orlando Gili

Experiencing Smithfield at night is a bit like uncovering a parallel world that operates in the shadows, while the rest of London sleeps.

There’s a sense of frenetic energy and unpredictability: forklifts whizz past men in long jackets hunched over neatly stacked boxes, punching numbers into calculators and fielding phone calls. Many of the businesses are family run and there’s clearly a strong sense of camaraderie. Inside the tall Victorian halls, behind large glass windows, carcasses are hacked into pieces at literally breakneck speed. It is a physical analogue space with something of a masculine atmosphere.

I visited Smithfield on early winter mornings to develop a portrait series that celebrates the people behind the market. Night workers provide an under-appreciated role in meeting the demands of the 24/7 modern city, risking significant damage to their health.

But in five years time – after more than 800 years of trading meat in central London – the market will relocate to a £1 billion high-tech behemoth on the fringe of the capital, in Dagenham, as part of a wider trend to sanitise inner cities with less palatable aspects of urban life kept out of sight. These photographs document the last generation of butchers working on the historic site.

A meat seller in a car
Photograph: Orlando GiliTony, pig meat seller
A man standing in white overals
Photograph: Orlando GiliAdam, butcher
James, sales manager
Photograph: Orlando Gili
A person working with meat
Photograph: Orlando GiliKye, unloader
Mark, chicken salesmen
Photograph: Orlando GiliMark, chicken salesmen
A man in a fork lift
Photograph: Orlando GiliRoger, fork lift operator
A worker on the phone
Photograph: Orlando GiliSean, beef salesmen, and Greg, cashier
A man with smoke coming out of his mouth
Photograph: Orlando GiliSimon, salesmen
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