Does how we feel comes through in our photographs ?
Please bear with me through the first couple of paragraphs, we will get into photography shortly ..
Snobbery, it’s an old English vice, which used to be all about accent, manners, affluence and which family you happened to be born into. I’m not saying these forms of snobbery no longer exist, but we now have an extra layer to consider. The type of snobbery where those coming from ordinary backgrounds who have benefited from a better education, are now looking down upon those they left behind who they now consider to be ignorant.
Politically, I believe this phenomenon is what is causing so many problems for the Labour party and its dwindling support. A party now being lead by a barrister, who I have no doubt has his heart in the right place, but really has no way of knowing how to speak to the sort of people who’s votes used to keep the Labour party consistently in the lead at the ballots. We now have a university educated middle class, and those living in the cities are indeed voting in numbers for Labour. Yet the more manual working community seems to be left unloved by Labour, being looked down upon as they adopt the attitudes fed to them by the controlling classes.
How we feel creeps into our photos
So what the heck has all this political nonsense got to do with photography? Well, I think there are real parallels to be drawn in what you might call street photography and what’s happening in our society as a whole. It’s not a new thing either, older perhaps than the current disconnect between working people and the Labour party. In 1982 during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, Martin Parr moved to Wallasey along with his family, where he set about photographing the working class of Merseyside as they spent their leisure time in New Brighton, the work was published in his book The Last Resort.
There are two views of Martin Parr’s work in The Last Resort, one states that he was merely focussing an unflinching eye at the working class, a pure documentation of what was before him. The other point of view, which I subscribe to, is that his work had a sneering outlook, a view with no compassion. I would contrast Martin Parr’s work with that of Tom Wood, who lived in New Brighton for 25 years, who was taken to the bosom of the local people, who gave him the nickname ‘Photieman’. While Tom Wood equally photographed the people of Merseyside at their leisure in the pubs and clubs around New Brighton, it is obvious though that in his many photos in and around New Brighton the empathy Tom Wood had for the people of the area really comes through, in a complete contrast to that of Martin Parr’s work.
Today in the era of social media, I often take note of people looking to take gritty northern photographs. This is a principal I firstly just don’t get, and secondly feel it’s yet just another one of those subtle ways the privileged try to put down the North of England and its people. The North of England is a truly beautiful place, and you don’t need to look far to see it’s beauty, we certainly don’t need any ‘levelling up’ when it comes to the quality of our surroundings.
I think anyone born and bred in the north would struggle to understand this idea that it’s grim up-north, because we all have such fond memories growing up here. Myself when I think back to the 60s, 70s & 80s I have nothing but love for Liverpool, the area where I grew up and enjoyed life so much. I like to think therefore that the photographs that I take of the area, convey the love, compassion and empathy I feel for the area and it’s people.
Looking around social media though, I often see photos of the region that do not convey those same feelings. Perhaps taken by people who consider themselves above the situation, looking down upon their photographic subject, when I see such photos they stand out to me at least. I think it’s especially obvious when you start to see a body of work by a photographer, a single photo may be just an unfortunate capture. A body of work though, well that will truly purvey how a photographer feels about a subject.
Do I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder ? Maybe I do a little, but after a life of working for companies based in the South for the last 30 odd years, and putting up with endless jokes about my stealing peoples hub caps it does eventually start to wear a little thin, and perhaps it’s not too surprising if a modicum of sensitivity is felt. Chip on the shoulder or not, this new snobbery exists in our society and it is naturally reflected in the photographs we see.
Here is another way to illustrate my point, can I ask you to mentally return to the Brexit debate (sorry). In retrospect it seems to have become obvious that many people were manipulated, by those with significant financial benefits at stake, to vote in favour of Brexit. Many photographs were taken by those against Brexit of crowds of people in favour of Brexit (and vice-versa etc.), critical photos, decrying those who would vote for Brexit. Perhaps here there was some of that new age snobbery going on as well, only in photographic form, people of a different point of view looking down upon others, others who rightly should be on the same side, voting for the same party representing working people of all types. Yet divided by a wedge thrust in by the super privileged. I can only be thankful that plenty of photographs of Nigel Farage looking suitably ridiculous were also taken to add some balance to the situation.
In one respect at least it’s a good thing, consider what will be recorded when we go around documenting our surroundings for future generations of our families to see. Perhaps not only will the subjects of those photographs be recorded, but so will the attitudes of the photographers be seen through the body of their works, and hence future generations will get an idea of their photographic attitudes as well as subjects.
To sum it up
I think many of us dabble in photo-journalism/documentary type photography at some point or another, and indeed there are some who do it very well and make a living from it. One thing I note of these sort of photographs is that it doesn’t take much to make a photo either a compassionate or cynical recording of a subject. A minor adjustment of angle to include or not include a refuse bin in the background, a matter of seconds whether the photo includes a yawning person behind the subject and so on. Small decisions, that not only make a big difference as to what is recorded, but also if done repeatedly will add to the assumptions that may be made about the photographers attitudes.
So there we have it, I try and avoid politics on-line as a rule, but the parallels between society and photography were all to obvious to me to not make the point. Something to consider if you, like me, consider your photographic work to be a legacy, no matter how small, to be passed down the generations in what is now a metaphorical shoe box.
All photographs taken and processed by myself using analogue equipment, prior to digital conversion for publication purposes.
© Copyright owner Steve Starr. First publication 18th September 2021