Chris Killip: Photographer of the Working Class

Chris Killip, who passed away last month, captured the Northern communities at the forefront of resistance to Thatcherism – and gave their struggles a human face.

Rooted in acute observation and intimate immersion in the communities he photographed, Chris Killip’s work captured the painful impact of deindustrialisation, recording ordinary people’s lives in stark, yet poetic, detail. These black and white images are recognised as some of the most important visual records of 1980s Britain, and, were, as Gerry Badger described, ‘taken from a point of view that opposed everything [Thatcher] stood for.’

Killip was born on the Isle of Man in 1946, leaving school at 16 and photographing the island’s beaches in his spare time. In 1964 he began working as a commercial photography assistant in London, before deciding to develop his personal practice as a documentary photographer. In the early 1970s, Killip worked at his father’s pub during the night, and set out to capture the disappearing traditional way of life on the Isle of Man during the day. It was this experience that set the tone for his continuously immersive approach to working, and his choice of community as a subject matter.

Galvanised by the 1974 miners’ strike, Killip moved to Newcastle in 1975, embarking on a prolonged project to photograph the people of the North-East and their declining industrial landscape. The resulting black and white images, mostly made on 4×5 film, are poignant expressions of his anger at the destruction of its mining, fishing and shipbuilding communities: Tyneside kids playing in the street as a supertanker ship looms in the background, rows of derelict housing estates framed by billowing flue gas stacks, a young skinhead crouched in despair against a wall.

Though often perceived as bleak, they offered, as Martin Parr reflected, ‘a different type of documentary photo to what we had been used to in Britain… they escaped the whimsical rendition of working-class life and showed a direct, more subjective, viewpoint, free of sentiment and nostalgia.’ For Killip, this meant capturing a truthful snapshot of the lives of his subjects – of working-class people struggling to survive the painful process of deindustrialisation – without reducing them to empty political metaphors. As Clive Dilnot has argued, Killip’s work focused on ‘localised points of revelation’: small enough communities that Killip could form personal relationships with his subjects.

At Lynemouth, Northumberland, Killip lived for 14 months in a caravan on the beach between 1983 and 1984. Here, after initially being treated with suspicion by locals, he attempted to establish a deep bond of trust with the small unwaged community built around the precarious pursuit of harvesting coal washed ashore. Surpassing the boundaries of usual reportage, the relationships he built allowed him to create intimate portraits that reflected the dignity and poignant struggle of his subjects, and evoke conflicting moods.

The image of a girl playing with a hula hoop on the detritus strewn beach is at first a portrait of innocence and reverie. Yet, upon further contemplation, its jarring angle and stark background manages to express the sense that an unrelenting, unidentifiable force has determined the individual life pictured (alongside the many other young lives Killip photographed across the North-East).

Killip’s sustained focus on this gritty black and white documentary photography well into the 1980s indicates his commitment to the historically political undercurrents of this art form. At a time when photographers such as Martin Parr used vibrant colour to capture the emerging individualism of Britain’s prospering middle class, Killip remained dedicated to exposing the plight of the working class in an increasingly unfashionable photography style. The incompatibility between his documentary photography and an art world that rewarded the flippancy of Jeff Koons (and later, the Young British Artists), mirrored the marginalisation of working-class industrial communities and the labour movement, as society was restructured around neoliberal values.

Although Killip rejected the suggestion that his photographs personified Thatcher’s Britain (pointing out that they were actually shot under four different prime ministers), they have since become iconic visual expressions of the destruction of working-class lives, communities and industries that defined neoliberalism. Whether he intended this reading or not, Killip was aware of the power of photography as a political tool with which to document and comment on a period of industrial, economic and social disintegration.

The sense of urgency evident in his images reflects this desire to give agency to those most affected by historical forces. Identifying his In Flagrante photographs as ‘people’s history’, Killip demonstrated that his work did not simply record people’s lives but allowed their stories to be valued, contextualised and immortalised. Although these photographs could not bring about political or social change on their own, they did – and continue to – encourage an understanding of Northern deindustrialisation, the disappearance of certain kinds of labour and ‘the people who history happened to.’

Ultimately, his images of pain and stoicism in the face of a vicious Conservative government speak to working-class communities today. Just as the places captured by Killip stood in opposition to Thatcherism in the 1980s – from the miners’ strike to the rate-capping rebellion – the North is once again asserting itself in resistance to the government’s incompetent handling of Covid and the inevitable return of austerity. Andy Burnham, as Mayor of Manchester, has discovered a form of radicalism in local government that alluded him in Westminster, his now viral speech condemning the lack of financial support to the North echoing Killip’s own condemnation of the ‘system which regards [working-class Northern] lives as disposable’.

At a time when a Northern Republic is becoming an increasingly less tongue-in-cheek political goal, Killip’s work not only beautifully articulates the political and economic alienation of the North, but also captures historically how such desires for autonomy and independence have been a long time coming. What we need, now more than ever, is to take lessons from his uncompromising commitment to local community as a basis for realigning and re-establishing links to the Northern working-classes.

There is, fundamentally, a dual power to his work: it reminds us of the importance of place and community in fostering solidarities within the Left and resisting the forces of capitalism, but also of the role of art in giving agency to the labour movement. Through maintaining photography’s connection to history and politics we can similarly record the plight of communities today, rendering their lives meaningful by truthfully representing the present working-class experience. Killip’s photographs belong to a certain time and place, but their evocations of class, struggle and resilience have a timeless resonance that must be remembered.