An old man walking between rows of terraced housing and, behind him, the sky erased by the huge bow of a ship being built. A teenager picking coal on a beach. A man manoeuvring his horse and cart around a car dumped by the sea. A young girl playing hula-hoop in a desolate, rubbish-strewn landscape.
Chris Killip and Graham Smith’s photographs, mostly of the north-east of England, in the 1970s and 1980s, the era of deindustrialisation, of smashed communities and broken lives, look like images of a different world. Two exhibitions opened last week in London showcasing their photography, one a retrospective of Killip’s work, the other a recreation of a joint exhibition, Another Country, first shown in 1985. They raise questions both of the nature of photography and of our perceptions of working-class lives.
Smith came from South Bank, a working-class area of Middlesbrough, his father a third-generation steelworker. Most of his photography is of the local streets and pubs, of the last days of the steelworks and shipyards and of the dereliction that followed. The pubs he so often photographed, Smith wrote, “are used by those whose future is the… next good drink”.
Killip, who died of cancer two years ago, came 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 to the photos of both men, born of a deep empathy with those whose lives they were capturing.
For all the warmth and humanity, though, these are images shot through with a despairing bleakness. Even in the most hopeful of photos – employees at a Pirelli factory displaying an almost craft-like relationship to their work, men quietly repairing fishing nets, punks losing themselves on a night out – there is an edge of desolation. It is a bleakness perhaps best expressed in a pair of Killip’s twinned photos. The first, taken in 1975, shows a rundown terrace. In the second, taken from the same spot two years later, the houses have been demolished, the rubble strewn across the street. What remains intact is a piece of graffiti painted across a half-shattered wall. “Don’t vote. Prepare for revolution.”
It was as if the outside world was mocking the community, telling it: “The only change will be the change we impose, and not just the physical infrastructure, or the social bonds of the community, but your hopes, too, will be reduced to rubble.”
In Poverty Safari, his blistering account of what it is 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”. “This may seem like a self-defeating view,” he adds, but people in such communities learn that the real problems are not of poverty as such but the problems of changing anything: “What’s difficult is how many walls you come up against when you try to do anything about it.” The system is designed not to meet working-class needs but “for working-class people to be ‘engaged’ by ‘facilitators’ and ‘mentors’ who help them water down whatever they want to do in order that community aspirations align with those in positions of power or influence”.
The writer Lynsey Hanley similarly observes, in an essay for the Killip retrospective, that the photographs “can’t but make you ask the question: why don’t we revolt here? Why does there seem to be 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 won’t win”. It is a despondency almost tangible in the photos.
There was another world, of course, the world of resistance expressed through the miners’ strike and inner-city riots, the Right to Work movement and squatters’ groups. But these having been brutally crushed, Smith and Killip seem to be saying, agency and resistance were now expressed as much in ensuring survival as in fomenting change.
The exhibitions also raise questions of how working-class lives are depicted. “There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture,” the essayist and critic Susan Sontag observed. “By seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have,” Sontag adds, a photograph “turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed”.
There is an element of truth in this. Killip himself was chased off and beaten up by locals when he first tried to take photos of the sea-coalers – the men and children who spent hours scouring beaches, often knee-deep in water, for the spoil tipped into the sea by the coalmines, to be bagged and taken away in horse-drawn carts. The authorities used to photograph them, too, to prosecute and deny benefits to the men who worked in this shadow economy. It took three years for Killip to build sufficient trust to be allowed to take photos on the beach. But out of that trust came some of the most remarkable photos, exposing the seam along which “the Middle Ages and the twentieth century are entwined”, as Killip himself put it.
The issue Sontag raises is not just about how a photograph is taken but also about how we perceive it. When we look upon an image, we do not see it through the photographer’s eyes, still less through the minds of the subjects of the photograph, but, rather, through the social framework through which we come to understand any issue. It’s a framework that, when it comes to working-class people, either condescends to them as victims, demonises them if they challenge authority or, occasionally, romanticises them as heroes. Too often, they are seen through the lens of “otherness” and through the sensibilities of outsiders. Just listen to today’s discussions of the “left behind” or of the “white working class”.
Killip and Smith did not take photos of another world. They recorded our world, showing what had been done to working-class communities and what such communities have had to do to survive. And, yet, both then and now, there is more to such communities than passive survival; there is also active challenge and resistance, too, seen today in everything from the summer of strikes to Enough is Enough. That, too, needs to be nurtured and celebrated. And photographed.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist
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