Romanticize or demonize – not the only ways to frame working class life | Kenan Malik

AAn old man walks between rows of terraced houses and, behind him, the sky blotted out by the huge prow of a ship under construction. A teenager picks up coal on a beach. A man maneuvering his horse and cart around an abandoned car by the sea. A young girl playing hula-hoop in a desolate, rubbish-strewn landscape.

Photographs by Chris Killip and Graham Smith, mostly from the North East of England, in the 1970s and 1980s, the era of deindustrialisation, broken communities and shattered lives, resemble images of a different world . Two exhibitions opened last week in London showcasing their photography, one an retrospective of the work of Killipthe other a reconstruction of a joint exhibition, Another countryshown for the first time in 1985. They question both the nature of photography and our perceptions of working-class life.

Smith came from South Bank, a working class area of ​​Middlesbrough, his father was a third generation steelworker. Most of his photographs are of local streets and pubs, the last days of steel mills and shipyards and the abandonment that followed. The pubs he so often photographed, Smith writes, “are used by those whose future is the…next good drink.”

Killip, who died of cancer two years ago, is 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 a humanism in the photos of the two men, born of a deep empathy with those whose lives they captured.

Helen and her hula-hoop, Lynemouth, Northumberland, 1984. Photography: © Chris Killip. All rights reserved.

For all the warmth and humanity, however, these are images shot through with hopeless sadness. Even in the most hopeful photos – employees of a Pirelli factory displaying an almost artisanal relationship to their work, men quietly mending fishing nets, punks getting lost at parties – there is an edge of desolation . It’s a sadness perhaps best expressed in a pair of twin photos of Killip. The first, taken in 1975, shows a dilapidated terrace. In the second, taken at the same location two years later, the houses have been demolished, with rubble strewn across the street. What remains intact is a piece of graffiti painted on a half-broken wall. “Don’t vote. Prepare for revolution.

It was as if the outside world was mocking the community saying, “The only change will be the change we impose, and not just the physical infrastructure, or the social ties of the community, but your hopes too will be dashed. “. to the rubble.

In poverty safari, his scathing account of what it is like to grow up in a poor working-class community, Darren McGarvey observes that “in the poorest communities there is a pervasive belief that things will never change”. “It may seem like a counter-productive view,” he adds, but people in these communities learn that the real problems are not poverty as such, but the problem of changing anything: “ What’s difficult is how many walls you run into when trying to do anything about it. The system is not designed to meet the needs of the working class, but “for working class people to be ‘engaged’ by ‘enablers’ and ‘mentors’ who help them dilute everything they want to do so that the aspirations of the community align with those of the community. positions of power or influence”.

Writer Lynsey Hanley similarly observes, in an essay for the Killip retrospective, that the photographs “can only 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 an almost tangible discouragement in the photos.

Auntie Elsie and Sandy, First Doors to the Commercial, South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1983.
Auntie Elsie and Sandy, First Doors to the Commercial, South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1983. Photography: Graham Smith

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 squatter groups. But these having been brutally crushed, Smith and Killip seem to say, agency and resistance were now speaking out as much to ensure survival as to foment change.

The exhibitions also raise questions about the representation of working-class life. “There’s something predatory about taking a picture,” the essayist and critic Susan Sontag observed. “By seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge about them that they can never have,” Sontag adds, a photograph “transforms people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”

There is some truth in that. Killip himself was chased and beaten by locals when he first tried to take photos of the charcoal burners – the men and children who spent hours scouring the beaches, often knee-deep in the sea. water, for the spoil dumped into the sea by the coal mines, to be bagged and taken away in horse-drawn carts. Authorities also photographed them to sue and deny benefits to men who worked in this underground economy. It took three years for Killip to build enough trust to be allowed to take pictures 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 20th century are intertwined”, as Killip himself said.

The question raised by Sontag is not just about how a photograph is taken, but also how we perceive it. When we look at an image, we don’t 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 issue. . It is a framework that, when it comes to working-class people, either condescends them as victims, demonizes them if they challenge authority, or, at times, idealizes them as heroes. Too often they are seen through the prism of ‘otherness’ and through the sensibilities of strangers. Just listen to today’s discussions of the “left behind” or the “white working class”.

Killip and Smith didn’t take otherworldly photos. They recorded our world, showing what had been done to working-class communities and what those communities had to do to survive. And yet, both yesterday and today, these communities are not limited to passive survival; there is also active defiance and resistance, too, seen today in everything from the summer of strikes to Enough is Enough. This too should be nurtured and celebrated. And photographed.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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