Wednesday, February 01, 2012
The Guardian newspaper recently illustrated a story on the ‘north-south divide’ with a picture of a child running down a Manchester back alley in the rain. The caption read “A child playing in Manchester. A charity says 1.6 million UK children live in poverty”. The alley does look typically northern, but nothing in the picture suggests deprivation, other than an echo, for photo buffs with a long memory, of a Bert Hardy photo of the Gorbals taken in 1948.
There is nothing wrong with the Guardian photo itself, just with how it has been used. The iconography of poverty too often makes use of stereotypes, and in this case the caption relies on ‘up north and wet’ to convey the intended meaning.
What does poverty look like when the sun is shining? According to the latest Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Jaywick Sands (below), close to the Essex resort of Clacton-on-Sea, is the most deprived ward in the UK. But despite the boarded-up shops and broken pavements, under a blue August sky, it doesn’t really look the part.
With some exceptions, it is difficult for a single image to capture either the experience, or the causes, of poverty in a developed western economy. We don’t have tin-roofed shanty towns (although Brooklands Estate in Jaywick, originally built as a low-cost beach-side holiday resort, comes close). Even the poorest child has shoes. The statistics tell us that a low income tends to result in obesity rather than emaciation.
Decaying infrastructure, as in Jaywick, signifies something is wrong, but not how it impacts on people’s lives, or how it got that way. No-one is suggesting that those living north of Watford Gap are particularly feckless. The poverty of the ‘north-south divide’ is clearly systemic, its causes macro-economic and political, usually complex, and often longstanding. Many parts of northern England have never recovered from the rapid de-industrialisation of the 1980s. The tens of thousands of jobs lost in coal and steel have not been replaced. How do you show something that isn’t there?
The exceptions – instances where a single photograph does unambiguously capture something of the feel of poverty – are also problematic. Obvious examples are the images of rough sleepers used in fund-raising publicity by charities for the homeless. Family breakdown, mental illness and drug misuse are the most common reasons people end up on the street. But the focus on individual stories, however tragic, which such images encourage, diverts attention away from the failures, also systemic, that underlie them: inadequate care homes, mental health facilities and housing provision.
The current economic crisis is often compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the UK, that era is still remembered through the faded black and white images of the Jarrow Crusade, flat-capped dole queues, and downcast men standing idle on street corners. Poverty doesn’t look like that any more. Colour makes a big difference. The girl in the Guardian photograph is wearing a bright red coat. It looks new. In black and white it would have shown up as a miserable dark blob.
More importantly, the communities that grew up around the now closed pits, steelworks and other heavy industrial sites have largely fragmented. The ethos of solidarity that they embodied, and that underpinned the birth of the Welfare State, has been displaced by the individualism of the neo-liberal years. Although the causes of poverty and unemployment remain systemic, they are no longer experienced collectively. How can you convey the bigger picture with photographs of individuals? It can be done, but it needs more than one picture, the right words, and some history.
In the USA, the Depression years were famously documented in depth by the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration. The body of work they produced, of derelict farms, dust-blown fields, bankrupt share-cropper families, soup kitchens and the rest, managed to show that bigger picture, in a way that gave a context to photographs of individuals. It is impossible to look at Dorothea Lange’s well-known ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph, for instance, without having in the back of one’s mind images, by Walker Evans and others, of the destitution she was fleeing.
All that is a long way from sun-blessed Essex. Not only is the experience of poverty in 21st century Britain more fragmented, it is also mitigated by the existence of the Welfare State, whatever its inadequacies. In Jaywick a high proportion of residents are dependent on state benefits or pensions, but they are not typical. Most people whose income falls below the poverty threshold in the UK are in work. The National Minimum Wage is currently £6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and over; the minimum for apprentices is £2.60; the National Living Wage (outside London) is £7.60. None of these rates are affected by the weather. People ‘up north’ aren’t poor because it rains a lot. And down south, even if it looks less gritty, poverty doesn’t go away when the sun shines. It’s a complicated story, and newspapers need to find better ways of telling it.
This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the British Journal of Photography.