Towards a Photography of Austerity

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The FSA photographic unit’s depiction of the Great Depression was highly influential.

More than six years on from the start of recession, Britain remains mired in what feels like a state of perpetual austerity. Cuts to essential state services like healthcare and welfare are rampant and ongoing, and the poor, sick, elderly, and ‘other’ are routinely wheeled out as scapegoats for problems they have little to do with causing or exacerbating. Whether austerity in Britain is in any sense economically necessary is still a matter of considerable debate (there are have been some compelling arguments that many of the relatively small welfare savings made through it just generate greater costs elsewhere, for example in the prison system). Many, myself included, would argue that it’s motivated at least as much by politics and ideology, particularly the incumbent conservative government’s traditional hostility to statism, and their generally rather Victorian ideas about work, welfare and morality.

Several interlinked questions have been weighing on my mind since an interesting exchange on this topic at the end of last year. Given that this campaign of austerity is one of the biggest single issues to affect this country and its people in a decade or more, and considering that it’s effect are likely to be very long lasting, what is being done right now to record it? Can we speak of a photography of austerity? What form might such a photography take, and what might it achieve?

First, there are certainly photographers out there recording the effects of austerity. I think for example of Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia, with it’s focus on the people who have been directly impacted by cuts to services, or by a social environment which seems to be increasingly hostile to people who are unable to work. The same goes for Hannah Mornement’s Food Bank Britain, a project on what is surely the great unofficial emergency service of twenty-first century Britain. Likewise works like Ed Thompson’s Occupy record the public reaction to austerity. These are all important projects. They bring attention to subjects which need it, and hopefully provoke change at some level. At the very least they will stand as historical records, a lingering J’accuse of the economic and social savagery of a government towards its own people. But the thing that they have in common also hints to me at the larger problem with attempts to record austerity, which is the overwhelming emphasis on the visible consequences of it.

This is hardly unique to our attempts to document austerity. It goes without saying that photographers are drawn to the most visible subjects, and it is always far harder and less attractive to attempt to visualise what is beyond being seen. But if we want to talk about a broader photography of austerity then I don’t think this is enough. Any photography of austerity which focuses principally on the consequences will always be incomplete. Beyond picturing the effects, we need to also visualise the causes of the crisis and the negotiations and machinations that lead it to manifest in the way it has, as a campaign against the poorest in society. Of course these things are notoriously difficult to capture in images, and indeed some of them are probably near impossible to record using traditional documentary approaches. None the less some photographers are trying, Mark Curran’s The Market, a long term work on global financial markets, is a relatively rare example of someone aiming to give visibility to the nebulous global forces which rule our lives. Similarly Simon Robert’s Let This Be a Sign attempts to bridge the divide between financial cause and effect and examine the two in one body of work, but these projects are certainly exceptions from the norm.

For my part a big part of the reason I turn to techniques like photomontage and the juxtaposition of images is again the intangibility of many of the things I want to draw attention to. The complicities between politicians and unaccountable corporations, the rank hypocrisies that cadge cuts in terms of a moral responsibility, and so on. As I noted in a recent piece on photomontage, when so many of the conversations and mechanisms that determine the course of our lives operate behind closed doors it becomes vital that we look beyond traditional ideas and forms of documentation in order to draw attention to these things. That can mean using techniques more often associated with art practice or propaganda than documentary, approaches which many photographers (rightly and wrongly) still have misgivings about. But if recording these important topics means making work which is seen as subjective or politically loaded, then perhaps that is part of the price we need to consider paying. Recently I’ve spent much time looking at the work of Trevor Paglen, who very effectively deals with similar problems in his attempts to make visible the invisible apparatus of the American security state.

Moving beyond the method, part of the problem also seems to me to be the enormous scale of this issue. Something raised in the original conversation was the absence of collective action or organisation by photographers and artists. There are national groups like the Artists’ Assembly Against Austerity, but these kinds of organisations seems to much more about showing a united front against austierty than deploying the specific skills of members to change opinions.

With events like the recent Scottish independence referendum we saw the role of groups like Document Scotland in generating interesting work and dialogue about often rather disparate questions of national identity and self-determination. The individual projects that emerged out of this collective effort were interesting, but infinitely more interesting were the invisible strands one could start to detect emerging between the quite disparate subjects that each dealt with. This is part of the great strength of collective action, that the produced effect is very often greater than the sum of its parts, and that it can unite scattered subjects and places in a way a single photographer would struggle to. Above all in this context, such a collective would offer the possibility of starting to draw connecting threads between events happening on the streets of Britain, and decisions being made in closed boardrooms and government offices. There could be a strong case for a similar collective approach to documenting the recession, one which incorporates a diverse range of subjects using a varied approaches.

Although it’s early days, the recent election of Syriza in Greece on an anti-austerity platform demonstrates that people can decide to reject austerity in favour of something else (and it’s interesting to note that Greece has a far better developed photographic response to the crisis, for example the Depression Era collective). A precursor to that rejection has to involve showing people that the policies of austerity are the products of particular political decisions, not the demands of some abstract market deity which must now be appeased at any cost. As Marco Bohr pointed out yesterday, photographers have a very real power, and a very great part to play in making this happen.