Sites of Struggle and photography

Offline Essay No. 3, April 2020


Sites of struggle are fairly easy to photograph once the struggle has moved on. I have been driven to photograph in the Welsh Valleys, a region that has had more than its share of struggle through the rise and fall of its dominant coal industry. There are many reasons why making this work has been important to me; some of it is to do with my family’s experience of living in the Rhondda through the Depression and on up to the present, much is to do with the massive changes I’ve witnessed in my own lifetime. All of this is of course best described as history. For all that I photograph landmarks in the present, I’m also drawing upon layers of the past. In doing so I do not necessarily seek out specific sites of struggle, certainly not contemporary ones. Of course, the place has experienced trauma, but it has also had its joys – my survey takes a long view in an attempt to make sense of the present.

It is not lost on me that right now there are real struggles taking place in the Valleys, in Wales and beyond. Early in 2019, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that four million working people were in poverty in the UK [1]. The Bevan Foundation informed us that Wales has over 160,000 children who are not getting their nutritional needs met [2]. However, there has been a casual dismissal of poverty by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond when responding to the UN report which concluded that 14 million people in Britain face dire poverty. Hammond stated, “look around you, that is not what we see in this country” [3].

Visibility is of course key. In more recent times towns and cities have been doing much to eradicate conspicuous homelessness as it (apparently) presents a bad civic image and damages trade. It seems we live in a time where making things less visible solves the problem – of course it doesn’t, it makes it worse. The truth is the example of homelessness is just the tip of a massive iceberg in terms of hardship and poverty with most of the associated struggles being played out in private spaces. This raises questions of how do photographers gain access to record at the current sites of struggle and how have photographers managed to do so in the past? Photographers have had to evolve ways of working to keep up with relentless social change.

Publicly visible hardship was a focus for photographic visitors to the Valleys in the interwar years of the Depression. Helen Muspratt photographed the derelict steelworks of Merthyr Tydfil in the 1930s. Prior to her stay in the Valleys she had visited the Soviet Union to see socialism in action and had been impressed by the organisation of labour there. Of her time in the Valleys she said:

I found the Welsh Valleys rather strange and beautiful… with snow on the hills and the mines closed. We saw unemployed miners collecting coal off the coal tip…[4]

Although my grandparents never spoke of it, my mother did once let slip that my grandfather had resorted to picking coal from the slag heap above the village around this time so that the family could have a fire. He was an out of work miner with a large family that included my mother and her seven siblings. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales has a fine collection of Helen Muspratt’s photographs from the Valleys including those of out of work miners on slag heaps. They are well worth a look – photographs are a great way for us to engage with our social history.

The photographer Edith Tudor Hart also made work in the south Wales Valleys in the 1930s. Her photographs of the Rhondda Valley were published in Geographical Magazine in 1936. As with Muspratt, Tudor Hart’s political alliance to communism enabled a visible ‘closeness’ between the photographer and her subjects. Later a selection of her work would be published under the title The Eye of Conscience [5]. Much of her work in the Valleys includes colliers and their families within landscapes of terraced houses, coalmines and slag heaps. The aim of these two photographers was to show how capitalism blighted the lives of the working classes. The boom, but more significantly the bust, of the most substantial industries in Wales would offer a focus for many photographers, particularly those working for the mass media magazines during the mid-twentieth century. These were times when you could often see the problems by just walking through the streets – that didn’t mean it was easy to make good photographs – however, there were many motivated photographers who certainly did.

Move forward almost half a century later and things were the same (struggle) but different (photography). Author and journalist Jeremy Seabrook wrote the essay The Changing Face of Unemployment for Ten-8 in 1983. Ten-8 Photographic Magazine had been created by a collective of photographers, attempting to create a platform for independent, socially concerned photography. In his essay Seabrook suggested that using photography to convey the pain of unemployment was more difficult in the (then) 1980s than in the 1930s because of the rapid removal of old factories, mills, collieries and slag heaps. He called this ‘the re-landscaping of capitalism’ – the dole queues, soup kitchens and poor conditions in the 1930s could easily be contextualised by symbols of industry – these had become less conspicuous in the 1980s. Seabrook wrote:

Perhaps this is why it all seems less than adequate when we try pictorially to represent the lasting sense of pain in working class life. There has been no real discontinuity: only the site of the struggles has been removed to a less accessible place [6].

During this period The Valleys Project provided fascinating insights into the changes being wrought upon society in Wales. Examples of photographers making work in places difficult to access included Paul Reas who showed the rapid changes taking place regarding gender and work, and Francesca Odell who showed how younger generations were coming to terms with unemployment and the associated hardships. Photographers were increasingly finding it necessary to make work where their audiences normally couldn’t or wouldn’t go. Around this time Paul Graham took photographs in DHSS jobcentres that were later published in his book Beyond Caring. His clandestine colour photographs were striking - in an interview Paul Graham stated that:

Beyond Caring was fighting talk, in a way, confronting the economic violence being done to a large section of the population by early 1980s Thatcherism. It wasn’t some theoretical principle, it was my personal situation. I was unemployed, so giros, UB40s, waiting rooms and endless interviews were a part of my life. What is interesting about these places [Jobcentres] is that they are where political policy and people collide. This was the primary concern of the work. The other factor, and remember this was 1984, was that people were shocked to see work like this made in colour; ‘serious’ photographers used black and white and that was that. Colour was seen as trivial…as if colour film removed any social context [7].

Moving several decades to the present things are the same (struggle) but different (photography). We live in a world of rampant global capitalism, global financial meltdowns, along with the resultant long-term underfunding for the UK’s NHS and other core social services. Whilst in a process of continual change, society itself struggles to come to terms with these challenges – almost all of it wrought by political decision making and greed. Claire Ainsley of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in her book The New Working Class points out that society is changing but, in many ways, the politicians haven’t kept up:

In the old politics of class, social groupings were more straightforward. In the days when the working class was politically organised in the form of trade unions, easy to address as a mass in factories, and would respond to the term ‘working class’, democratic representation and communication had a more linear path. Today, any party wanting to appeal to the new working class needs to have a first-hand understanding of the demographics, affiliations and identities of the diverse people who comprise this large constituency… As divisions between social class have become more blurred, so, too, have the groupings, but there is no going back to an era of mass identity [8].

In light of all these changes to society where are the new sites of struggle and how can photography access them?

In 2019 the Workers Gallery in Ynyshir, Rhondda hosted Small Town Inertia, a photographic exhibition by Jim Mortram. The gallery was keen to show the work as it mirrored some of what they were witnessing in terms of the lives of the people they saw on a weekly basis who were being badly affected by austerity. Mortram had recorded the lives of people blighted by benefit cuts to the poor, sick and vulnerable from his hometown of Dereham, Norfolk.

Jim Mortram didn’t originally set out to be a photographer but had started to record his ongoing experience of being a full-time carer for his parents and a friend to those in his community who had been badly affected by austerity. His photographic sensibilities grew out of the work of the earlier Exit Photography Group that comprised Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins, Paul Trevor. Their 1982 book Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities became something of a template not only for Mortram’s photographic strategy, but also the design of his subsequent Small Town Inertia book [10]. The preface to Survival Programmes starts with:

Documentary photographers have traditionally been concerned with the ‘human condition’. But to document a condition is to explain it. The condition is a symptom not a cause; more precisely, it is the outcome of a process. Therefore, in the way we present the material in this book we are as much concerned to indicate processes as to record conditions [9].

The important point here is to ‘indicate processes’, that is, to show why these struggles came into existence in the first place. To achieve this, the photographs need additional or supporting material; in the case of Survival Programmes this included texts taken from interviews with the people photographed, along with statistics and data from studies that examined poverty and its relationship to the development of modern industrial practices. Mortram also included similar contemporaneous testimony in Small Town Inertia. The conditions he photographed included loneliness, distress, self-harm and, of course, poverty.

Small Town Inertia might therefore seem like something of a throwback – one where there is more of the same struggle (albeit in its twenty-first century form) but in a style of photography popular in documentary circles the early 1980s. Well, not quite. The photographs and the testimony have been widely distributed via digital platforms including blogs, social media and audio podcasts. Indeed, the hardcopy publication could not have existed without crowd funding via digital platforms. Perhaps the point here is that it is not necessary to slavishly follow the photographic style currently trending, but rather it is more important to use the tools that are available to extend the reach of the narratives related to the photographs and testimony. The target audiences are not only photography enthusiasts, primarily they are key influencers, politicians and those who might engender positive change.

Another important aspect of working at the sites of struggle can be found in recent work by the photographer Dan Wood. As Mortram has, in his words, collaborated with his family and friends, Wood has similarly engaged with his long-time Bridgend based friend to produce Pove the Great, a book self-published in 2019 [11]. Whilst the photographs show Pove to be an individual inclined to be an ‘outsider’ with a complex affinity to his local woodland, the testimony presented as part of the work provides a brief yet stark counterpoint. The devastatingly brutal testimony of Steve Povey (aka Pove the Great) at one and the same time provides illumination to his situation, whilst intensifying the fragmentary nature of the photographic series. Dan Wood’s overall descriptive strategy is discursive but no less powerful than Mortram’s more recognisably traditional approach.

The key questions that always seem to niggle away at me are firstly, who are photographs for, and secondly how can photographs change anything? Jim Mortram and Dan Wood have both made work that gives those photographed a voice – their subjects engage in the collaboration for the opportunity it brings to have their story heard. How that changes anything is perhaps more complex as much depends on audience reach which in turn is down to the tenacity of the producer and other advocates.

As photographers, it is important that we document the world around us, particularly recording the things that others cannot easily access or see; the things where our own personal insight can bring new understandings. As I indicated right at the beginning, photographic work is not always about being at the frontline action as far as the sites of struggle are concerned – but I’m deeply grateful for the many photographers who are. Our motivations for taking photographs are all very different. I do believe that photographs should enhance understanding and that we should strive to use our skills to somehow make the world a better place. It is my experience that the best photographers have a deep commitment to such things along with a very clear sense of what they want to achieve and why – without these qualities, photography is little more than vanity.

To finish I must come back to sites of struggle and the connection to poverty. In Survival Programmes there is a reference to Professor Peter Townsend’s assessment of information gathered over two hundred years relating to the persistence of poverty. There are four key points that still hold true. In summary they are
a) poverty is not caused by individual failure,
b) poverty is caused by the unequal distribution of wealth in society,
c) there is no significant move towards wealth equality in the UK, and
d) poverty is rooted in the class inequalities of our institutional and cultural systems.

It can sometimes seem that photography doesn’t really make a difference, but advances can and are being made. Photography can help illuminate the conditions of poverty, and if thoughtfully presented with other evidence it can be a force to change the causes. Now, more than ever, at a time where austerity politics are damaging individual lives and our own communities, we need to record the harm being done around us. Perhaps now is the time to see what you can do to make the seemingly invasive conditions and processes visible now and for the future? The struggle continues.

[1] JRF (Accessed July 2019)
[2] Bevan Foundation (Accessed July 2019)
[3] Big Issue #1179, p7.
[4] Sutcliffe,J. 2016. Face: Shape and Light – Helen Muspratt Photographer. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p98
[5] Tudor Hart, E. 2013. In the Shadow of Tyranny. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag. p68
[6] Seabrook. J. The Changing Face of Unemployment. In Ten-8. Issue 11. p5
[7] Graham. P. 1996. Paul Graham, Phaidon Press, London. p12
[8] Ainsley. C. 2018 The New Working Class. University of Bristol: Policy Press. p45
[9] Exit Photography Group. 1982. Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities. Milton Keynes: Open University. p7
[10] Mortram. J. 2017. Small Town Inertia. Liverpool: Bluecoat Press.
[11] Wood. D. 2019. Pove The Great. GITH Books.

© Paul Cabuts 2020

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