Relative Poverty

Last week the Welfare Conditionality research group published their findings on the use of sanctions in the UK benefit system. In 2017 they asked me to write a blog for their website after they’d become aware of the Relative Poverty project.

Here’s the piece I wrote for them with minor corrections -

Almost a year ago, I became agitated by an online news article. Over a million people in the UK were living in destitution. Other people too were agitated by this same article. Spending an hour or so with the trolls, and their wearied opponents, in the Comment is Free section wasn’t healthy but it made me realise that no matter how earnest, how scrupulously researched a charity’s report, or campaigning journalist’s article, there are swathes of the UK that refuse to believe ‘news’ they don’t agree with. I knew that within a stone’s throw of where I live I could find families in destitution, and one troll was basically daring me to do it -

 27 Apr 2016 07:15 89
 Statistics and generalisations again. I wonder if an investigative journalist could seek out one of these families. They could remain anonymous. Their history. Living circumstances. Actual income and income source. Tax paid (if any). From income. Expenditure. This would give a real picture of life today in the uk.

Other posters pointed out the flaws in this proposed approach — [compared to the charity’s report] it’s too subjective.

Yet Owen Jones notes the Left spend too much time citing facts, figures, and research, whereas those on the Right frame issues in simplistic, domestically based stories that are easy to absorb, and crucially repeat. I often use the — only 0.7% of benefits is falsely claimed stat — but it cuts little ice versus prurient stories of the benefit cheats [the numbers vary, but are all very low, one of the latest is used here]. There’s plenty of evidence of the power of storytelling, advertisers are using it all around us, and, in a way we know that the news is a story too, so I looked again at my practice to see what I could do to help those who are not represented, filmed or written about but are genuinely suffering.

I planned to spend ten days ‘in residence’ with local families. After Cameron crassly tried to move the goalposts when asked about families in poverty at PMQs the project gained a title; Relative Poverty. This also refers to the inherent privilege of the authors (and readers) of any report or documentary. I intended it to be authored by me and participants. Relative Poverty would be stories — based in fact, as we understand documentaries to be — and the intent was overt; to show the lives lived in as much detail as it takes to overcome the naysayers. A tall order I know — Scuba100 can dismiss the empirical substance of an entire Joseph Rowntree Foundation report with a few rapid keystrokes before breakfast. But not everyone who voted for this and the last government are trolls, many simply don’t know what’s going on. How to inform them about ‘news’ that doesn’t fit the mainstream media narrative has meant a reengagement with ideas from Allan Sekula in the late 1970s. After all, what would be the point of making a series and then trying to get it into the Guardian Weekend magazine only for Scuba100 to dismiss it and 99% of the UK population to not see it? Sekula suggests alternatives,

I am not suggesting the mass media can be effectively infiltrated. Mass “communication” is almost entirely subject to the pragmatics of the one-way, authoritarian manipulation of consumer “choices”. I think “marginal” spaces have to be discovered and utilized, spaces where issues can be discussed collectively: union halls, churches, high schools, community colleges, community centres, and perhaps only reluctantly, public museums.

For three months I worked with a number of families. The strains of living in destitution have meant that many haven’t been able to face taking part in the project at all. Much of my planned collaborative art pieces haven’t materialised and a great deal of the stories are mediated through documentary photographs and written testimony. Two families are anonymous [currently four of the five stories are anonymised], in a way they reflect those that couldn’t or wouldn’t take part — what right have we after all to pry? Contemporary society is very big on (instant) judgement and I, as a photographer, am well aware of the power of my medium to steal, lie, and cheat subjects of their dignity and more.

Relative Poverty will be exhibited at the Welfare Conditionality conference at the University of York 26–28 June 2018. It continues to be exhibited in Doncaster Libraries, is soon to visit Barnsley Libraries and will be shown at Sheffield Cathedral 15 October — 19 November 2018, with a symposium on 31 October featuring Dr Simon Duffy from the Centre for Welfare Reform, Paul Sng producer of Invisible Britain and Dispossession, Dan Jarvis MP, and The Very Reverend Peter Bradley.

OCA’s Creative Conversations video with Les will be live on #weareoca in June.

Originally published at #weareoca.