I’ve spent a lifetime recording British society, trying to capture extraordinary aspects of ordinary life, mainly with photographs but also with audio recordings and short movies. The work I do is collaborative, that is I aim to make media with people, not do it to them.
My website Photobus is an omnibus in more senses than one. The name comes from my early project Free Photographic Omnibus, where I travelled around England in the early 1970s aboard a somewhat ramshackle double-decker bus that I’d converted into my home, darkroom and gallery. But the site has become a repository for many other documentary projects, stretching from the early 1970s to the current day. Here’s 5 things I’ve learned in over 40 years of documenting everyday life:
1) If you’re stuck for subject matter, start by listening
For a brief period in 1972, when I was still nineteen, I ran a pop-up studio in Manchester’s Moss Side, the Shop on Greame Street. I discovered when I invited people in to this disused barber’s shop that, because I was on their territory, they would open up and tell me stuff that I couldn’t discover in any other way. By taking note of what they said, I learned what to point my camera at.
From then on, my documentary work was always determined by the terms of engagement I was able to establish after listening to the subjects of my pictures, and not by pressures or influences from outside.
In 1973, after crowdfunding for a year, I put my shop on wheels. That was when it became the Free Photographic Omnibus, a vehicle that enabled me to listen to people anywhere I parked up. People like Mrs Emare in Hulme and John Payne in Portsmouth.
This is a reading from the journal of the Free Photographic Omnibus, February 1974. I was in Hulme, Manchester, when a…vimeo.com
2) Once published, photographs take on lives of their own
From my bus in Southampton in May 1974, I photographed Florence Alma Snoad, an office cleaner who also did a bit of part-time work as a life model at the local art school.
In 1999 I tracked her down and photographed her again, publishing her pictures — ‘then’ and ‘now’ — in my book The Bus and also on Photobus, along with my account of our conversation and correspondence. Time passed.
I’ve subsequently made a little movie about what happened next. To write about it here would be to spoil the story. All I can say is that Florence’s picture went around the world on a fantastical cross-cultural journey that involved a New Zealand poet, a Slovenian composer, a sleigh ride in a fan-and-feather costume. All of which makes me very happy to have been alive during the time of the Internet, for this was an adventure that could not have happened in a pre-digital world. Here’s the film:
3) A photograph that’s made in a fraction of a second can take a lifetime to reveal its meaning
I used to say to people when I was taking their picture: “I’m going to put you in the history books.” But documentary can take a long time to mature. Work often seems commonplace at the time of its making, and a generation or two needs to pass before it can find an audience.
Now that I’m sixty-five and almost history myself, I find that work I did forty-five years ago, which has been languishing in the archive, is only now starting to attract attention. My Moss Side pictures, for instance, were recently the subject of two short films, the first, Neville, by the arts organisation Multistory, and the second by the BBC, who also commissioned an online piece, Photos from 1970s show life in Manchester’s Moss Side, that includes historical observations on the pictures by Professor Gus John. So at last, it seems, my people have indeed made it into history.
Even so it’s ‘living histories’ that I love best — reactions that come not from experts but from the people depicted in the pictures. Like Veronica Thompson commenting on her friendship with Sharon Richards — best friends at five in 1972 and still best friends at fifty in 2016:
Sharon Richards and Veronica Thompson are from Manchester. They contacted me after coming across a picture I'd taken of…vimeo.com
4) There’s much to learn and enjoy from the many ways pictures are understood
In our final year as students at the Manchester Polytechnic, Martin Parr and I got together and photographed the residents of June Street, Salford, each family posing in their front room. It was 1973, and June Street had been used in the filming of ITV’s soap opera Coronation Street. This intrigued us, because the programme depicted a northern working class life where everyone lived in close-knit communities and neat back-to-back terraced houses. But in reality, under a national programme of urban regeneration, those communities were now being dispersed and the houses bulldozed. June Street was demolished in 1975.
As we were completing the work, the BBC came and made a little film about what we’d done. But in those days there was no way of knowing what, if anything, that film meant to its audience. However, four decades later, when the June Street photographs were exhibited as part of my touring retrospective show at the National Media Museum in Bradford, I was able — now that social media had arrived — to properly eavesdrop on what gallery goers made of our pictures. It was fascinating and revealing:
5) I worry about my archive
Over nearly five decades I have accumulated quite an archive. Negatives and contact sheets, audio tapes, digital stories, magazines, books. And a lot of contextualising stuff: posters, newsletters, notebooks, diaries, correspondence.
In October 2014 the whole thing — my entire life’s work, packed into 209 boxes — was acquired by the swanky new £189 million Library of Birmingham. The photography holdings in Birmingham are famous, of international standing and part of the National Photography Collection. The promise was that my work would take its place in a lively programme of interpretation. I was chuffed.
In the years leading up to acquisition, the Library’s curator of photographs and chief archivist teamed up with other scholars and visited me many times, familiarising themselves with the work. Seminars were held, interns recruited, a publisher found. A consortium was formed to fund a big fat book (now sold-out) and a touring retrospective exhibition (seen by 50,000 people).
Visiting The Library in 2014, Tory MP Sajid Javid — at that time Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport — had his picture taken in the gallery and proudly tweeted about it:
But, just eighteen months after The Library of Birmingham had acquired my archive, Birmingham City Council — hit hard by the Conservative government’s austerity policies — cut The Library’s budget. This resulted in the entire photography curatorial and archiving team being axed.
A library is low hanging fruit for a government hell-bent on shrinking the public sector. What happened in Birmingham, though, was a shocking act of cultural vandalism. Forced to abandon its scholars, The Library was obliged to abandon scholarship itself, for many of those former staff members had spent their entire careers immersed there.
When they left, they took with them the knowledge which detailed and celebrated the interconnectedness of the whole collection. And now that knowledge is gone. For ever. And it’s a damn shame.
So much for my archive playing its part in a lively programme of interpretation. It remains in the vaults, unstudied and uncatalogued. No one even knows it’s there.