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Photographs of an unequal Britain

Photography in Britain in the period between the late 60s to late 80s was that of protest and drive for change in a dystopian landscape created by endemic poverty and increasing inequalities in housing. Political upheaval during this time resulted in increased unemployment because of the privatising of publicly owned businesses and closing of factories and coal mines. Charities such as Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group worked tirelessly to raise awareness and funds to help those who were homeless, unemployed, or living in substandard conditions. The director of the Child Poverty Action Group, wrote:

“If civilised life is to continue, the rich must strike a new social contract with the poor to the extent of breaking the cycle of inequality.” [Field in Stacey 68:2020]

Exit Photography Group (Exit)

From 1974 the group was made up of the self-taught photographers, Paul Trevor, Nicholas Battye, and Chris Steele-Perkins. At that time Battye worked as a security guard at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the foundation funded the first half of the groups six-year survey of Britain's inner cities, ’Survival Programmes: In Britain’s inner cities’ [1982]. Exit had a keen desire to use photography to make a difference, key to this was their continual presence in amongst the communities they engaged with. The group would often revisit inner city's location with their prints to share with the people living there. As Trevor recalls:

“People asked us for prints, and we gave them our reject prints and then we could not give enough prints away, so we agreed to do an exhibition. There was an annual festival, E1 Festival, and we made the prints. I had to sneak into Regent Street Polytechnic, as it then was, because we did not have a dark room.” [Trevor in Stacey 71:2020]

Exit were ever conscious of the politic of representation and often praised for their commitment to the group's ability to honestly represent the people in their photography, by having a policy of naming those in the photographs but of not crediting the individual photography generated praise from within the photographic community. The ‘Down Wapping’ project highlighted the way in which private and commercial development in the area damaged the community and further exacerbated unemployment. The project draws the attention of national press such as the Sunday Times and British Journal of Photography, this attention elevated the group’s presence which in turn enabled them to continue to produce projects of protest Britain’s inequalities. The group worked closely with the East End Docklands Action Group to highlight the perceived destruction of a local community.

“To put this into context, redevelopment of London docklands generated fierce political debate between the Conservatives, who favoured private funding to develop the area for commercial purposes and provide private housing, and the Labour Party, which wanted state funding used to create public housing and employment opportunities for the existing community.” [Stacey 71:2020]

Nick Hedges

The work of Nick Hedges images from Birmingham in the early 70’s holds a special connection for me, as my early childhood memories are of my time living in Birmingham. I recall whole streets of boarded up terraced housing, awaiting demolition, how a handful of friends lived in the one or two remaining households in those streets. I also recall playing in abandoned houses, finding evidence of drug use, plastic bags of glue, used needles and empty pill bottles. These things were just part of life, and we just did not question it. One of my earliest memories was visiting the factory where my dad worked, not unlike the factories featured in Hedges’ photographs, however, not long after that visit my dad, along with many others, was laid off as the factory fell victim to the politically driven economic turmoil the country faced.

Talking at the Bristol BOP21 festival Hedges described how photography in the past (1960-1990's for example) held much more power than today as we now view images with much more suspicion. As such the photobooks and pamphlets from those times can act to revisit and reflect upon the past, helping to inform the present, as I find myself doing now.

Growing up seeing the growing inequalities in Britain has informed my practice, as for these earlier photographers, I want to use photography to raise these issues, to bring to the fore the struggle not only faced by the poor but also by the working class. The evidence of this inequality can be seen in the very fabric of the city, the suburb, and town. Government policies have altered the environment we live and work in, the size and density of living space, the infrastructure, and the use of a city. Government has monetised, privatised, and perverted our right to live and thrive in the places we want to live in. Much of what the likes of Exit and Nick Hedges, and many other photographers, have done to highlight these issues has created a narrative of social dystopia that has built and led to the current crisis we face in the form of housing and Brexit.


Stacey, Noni “Photography of Protest and Community: The radical collectives of the 1970s” 2020 Lund Humphries

Nick Hedges in conversation with Martin Parr, “BOP21 Festival” RPS House, 23.10.2021

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