AAn old man walks between rows of terraced houses, and behind him the sky, obliterated by the huge nose of a ship under construction. A teenager collects coal on the beach. A man maneuvered a horse and cart around a car thrown into the sea. A young girl hula hoops in a desolate, littered landscape.
Chris Killip and Graham Smith’s photographs, mostly of North East England, 1970s and 1980s, an era of de-industrialisation, broken communities and broken lives, look like otherworldly images. Last week, two exhibitions of their photographs opened in London, one of which was by a retrospective of Killip’s workthe second is a reproduction of a joint exhibition “Foreign countryfirst shown in 1985. They raise questions about both the nature of photography and our understanding of working-class life.
Smith came from South Bank, a working-class area of Middlesbrough, his father a third-generation carpenter. Much of his photography is of local streets and pubs, the last days of the steelworks and shipyards and the dereliction that followed. The pubs he photographed so often, Smith wrote, “are used by those whose future is… the next good drink”.
Killip, who died of cancer two years ago, was originally from the Isle of Man but settled in the North East and photographed working-class communities across the country. There is a lyricism and humanism in both men’s photographs, born of a deep empathy for those whose lives they captured.
For all their warmth and humanity, these images are imbued with a desperate bleakness. Even in the most hopeful photos – Pirelli factory workers showing an almost artisanal attitude to their work, men calmly mending fishing nets, punks losing themselves on night walks – there is an edge of desolation. This bleakness is perhaps best expressed in a couple of Killip’s photographs. The first, taken in 1975, shows a collapsed terrace. In the second, taken from the same place two years later, houses have been demolished, rubble is scattered on the street. Graffiti painted on a dilapidated wall remained intact. “Don’t vote. Get ready for a revolution.”
It’s as if the outside world is taunting the community, telling it, “The only change will be the change we impose, and not only the physical infrastructure or social connections of the community, but your hopes will be shattered as well.”
U Poverty Safaris, in his rambling account of what it’s like to grow up in a poor, working-class community, Darren McGarvey observes that “in poorer communities there is a pervasive belief that things will never change.” “It may sound like a self-defeating view,” he adds, but people in such communities learn that the real problems aren’t poverty per se, but the challenges of making a difference: “The hard part is how many walls you face when you try to do something about it.” The system is not designed to meet the needs of the working class, but “to have working class people ‘engaged’ by ‘facilitators’ and ‘mentors’ who help them soften what they wish to make the aspirations of society coincide with the aspirations for positions of power or influence.’
The writer Lynsey Hanley similarly observes in an essay for the Killip retrospective that the photographs “can’t help but make you ask: Why don’t we arise here? Why does it seem like there’s no limit to what working class people will endure at the hands of the rich and powerful?” Killip’s answer, she concludes, seems to be “because we know we’re not going to win.” It is a desperation that is almost palpable in the photographs.
Of course, there was another world, a world of resistance, expressed through miners’ strikes and urban riots, the Right to Work movement and squatter groups. But after being brutally defeated, Smith and Killip seem to be saying that free will and resistance are now as much about ensuring survival as they are about driving change.
The exhibitions also raise questions about how the life of the working class is depicted. “There is something predatory about the very act of taking pictures,” essayist and critic Susan Sontag watched. “Seeing them as they never see themselves, having a knowledge of them they could never have,” Sontag adds, photography “turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
There is some truth in this. Kilipp himself was chased away and beaten by local residents when he first tried to photograph the sea coalminers – men and children who spent hours on the beaches, often knee-deep in water, looking for the spoil thrown into the sea by the coal mines. , put in bags and take out on wagons. The authorities photographed them, too, to harass and deny benefits to men who worked in this shadow economy. It took Kilipp three years to gain enough trust to be allowed to take pictures on the beach. But out of that trust came some of the most remarkable photographs, exposing the seam where “the Middle Ages and the Twentieth Century interweave,” as Killip himself put it.
The question Sontag raises concerns not only how a photograph is made, but also how we perceive it. When we look at an image, we do not see it through the eyes of the photographer, much less through the minds of the subjects of the photograph, but rather through the social framework through which we come to understand any problem. It’s a structure that, when it comes to working-class people, either condescends to them as victims, demonizes them when they challenge the authorities, or, at times, romanticizes them as heroes. Too often they are viewed through the prism of “otherness” and through the sensitivities of outsiders. Just listen to today’s discussions about “retired” or “white-collar workers”.
Killip and Smith did not photograph another world. They recorded our world, showing what was done to working class communities and what such communities had to do to survive. And yet, then as now, there is more to such communities than passive survival; there is also active challenge and resistance, also visible today in everything from the summer strikes to Enough means enough. This should also be nurtured and celebrated. And they took a picture.