In 1983, the English documentary photographer Paul Graham was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to capture his personal view of ‘Britain in 1984’.
Since graduating from Bristol University six years earlier, Graham had received several public grants for his work, but had, like roughly three million others in the UK at the time, been classified as unemployed for extended periods. He came to prominence in 1983 with the publication of his first photobook, A1: The Great North Road, a survey of transit and transience from the City of London to Edinburgh. Months after Margaret Thatcher won her second parliamentary term and with the Miners’ Strike looming, Graham was again given free rein to document the nation.
Having ‘signed on’ for state benefits in Bristol and later Marylebone, Graham was determined to examine the conditions in Social Security and Unemployment Offices. The result was Beyond Caring, his 1986 photobook shot in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, and reissued this year.
These are studies of neglect and mounting desperation. People of all ages wait together in drab waiting rooms, the warm colours of A1 drained by tired infrastructure and overcrowding. At one office, Graham recalled, a young mother had begged for a ‘death grant’ to pay for the funeral of her infant son, to be held that same afternoon. After a lengthy ordeal to prove certification, she was awarded £15.
Hope and despondency oscillate from room to room, face to face. Some claimants look upwards as if listening for their names while others sit facing the litter-strewn ground. Spilt coffee, food scraps, cigarette butts, and tissues are illuminated by overhead tubes which flatten morning into night, day after day. Men wear suits and ties but also tracksuits and slippers; canes and crutches rest beside the unsupervised elderly.
Graham was denied official access to the departments, so often had to shoot discreetly from his lap. The effect is an intimacy with crowds but distance from individuals. In one photo, a roving toddler looks up at a row of men, her pink outfit drawing none of their exhausted attention, as if invisible.
‘These offices were where political ideology and citizens’ lives collided,’ Graham reflects in a new afterword. He was not alone in pursuing these spaces. Between 1973 and 1985, Chris Killip travelled (and lived) around North Yorkshire, Tyneside, Wearside, Cumbria and Northumberland photographing the effects of deindustrialisation. His book In Flagrante was published in 1988 to widespread shock and acclaim – truer to the black and white documentary tradition than Graham’s entry; also more animated and angsty (one famous shot shows skinheads dancing to hardcore punk at a miners’ benefit concert).
Like Graham, Killip always rejected that his photography represents a fixed political moment. In In Flagrante’s 2016 reissue, he emphasised that his field work took place under four British prime ministers, not just Thatcher. When the pair’s images were shown together at New York’s MoMA alongside those of Graham Smith, John Davies, and Martin Parr in 1990, curator Susan Kismaric was careful to detach them from activism and political events (though not their social aftermath), despite the exhibition’s title: British Photography from the Thatcher Years.
A visceral idiom nonetheless accompanied the work. Killip witnessed subjects in a system ‘which regards their lives as disposable.’ Graham is equally damning in this year’s reissue. ‘Being thrown onto the scrapheap mid-life, and effectively told your experience and skills had no merit or value, was utterly destabilising,’ he writes. ‘What kind of country does that to its own citizens?’
The artists’ stylistic innovations are marked: the use of colour and artists shooting in their own communities, especially. But weren’t the social conditions in 1970s and ’80s England so unique that any art which depicted them successfully would, by default, be breaking new ground? Recent reassessments of neoliberalism’s impact have doubtless eased the work’s entry into a canon. Its implicit narratives have been consecrated. (Martin Parr quipped in 2018 that ‘all photojournalists are leftwing’.) A fair assessment is that for these photographers, aesthetic and historical trajectories combined at the opportune moment.
The claim made about Graham’s work today—as when it was reissued in 2011—is that modern socioeconomic parallels lend it new relevance. But unlike the early 1980s, there is now no shortage of photographic series, prizes, books, and exhibitions preoccupied with ‘Britishness’ or asking ‘what it means to be British’.
There is space for social documentary work, but often retrospectively. Tate Britain’s first major photography exhibition, How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007) gave the period 1970–89 the umbrella title ‘The Urge to Document’. Its overdue follow-up, Hope. Struggle. Change: Photographing Britain and the World 1945-79, promises to explore documentary photography from WWII to Thatcher’s election.
National identity is treated more gently in today’s art establishment. The British Journal of Photography’s annual Portrait of Britain award selects 100 winning images that ‘celebrate the many faces of modern Britain,’ mostly spotlighting portraiture over documentary styles. The 2019 preface recognised political fracturing, but seemed to downgrade the artistic mandate to capture it: ‘It’s crunch time for Brexit… and the UK is ever more divided,’ it read. ‘Portrait of Britain makes a timely return, offering an alternative view of nationhood, defined not by the discord of fiery political rhetoric, but the everyday circumstance of its citizens in all its diversity.’ Does ‘the urge to document’ still exist?
If so, it can be found documenting a shifting social landscape. Craig Easton has just been named Sony World Photography awards’ photographer of the year for Bank Top, a project overseen by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery to challenge stereotypes of the town as racially segregated. Returning to black and white lends itself to the sense of mixed heritage that Easton hoped to evoke, while slowing the slide into caricature that has plagued Parr’s recent state-of-the-nation work, especially since the Brexit vote. Whereas Graham sought to expose a social ill, Easton works to correct the perception of one – a sign perhaps of shifting political, rather than photographic, discourses.
Artistic ethics have also evolved since the 1980s, which Graham addresses somewhat defiantly in his new afterword. ‘The fact that people portrayed in photographs might not have “agency”, be it in the employment office, or simply walking in the street, renders such imagery—unstaged, unposed, naturalistic—unacceptable to some,’ he says.
He is correct to the extent that Beyond Caring may face more obstacles if being commissioned today (Graham concedes that for logistical reasons, he wasn’t able to ask everyone in the offices for their permission), but protections against poverty tourism and class voyeurism are a positive development, and moreover, none describe Graham’s project.
He may also be correct that posed and staged styles are suffocating naturalistic work, perhaps as lifestyle and fashion photography become more commonplace and celebrated. Involving subjects in the artmaking process is now more critical to the documentary format, as Easton’s project proves. But Graham and Killip were both deeply embedded in the communities they photographed. That such work seems scarcer now—in major institutions at least—is more to do with an establishment reluctance to make or support political work than ethical overcaution.
Today’s focus on archival and vernacular photography confirms that national identity is an ongoing process of correction to dominant fictions. For all Graham’s semantic evasions around agendas, his times required subjective, concerned actors to photograph the communities others would not. ‘The objective history of England doesn’t amount to much if you don’t believe in it – and I don’t,’ said Killip. To push photography forward, no one should.