A War of Poverty: J.A. Mortram’s Small Town Inertia

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“My life, now, pretty shit, to be honest. I was born with a hair lip, cleft lip, got brought up without a dad, my mum was my rock, my soul mate, my father, my mother all in one. Loads of blokes coming in and out which I didn’t like as I was the man of the house then, so I just rebelled. Been locked up a few times in police cells, went to prison for various offenses, driving offenses, fighting, a lot. I went to jail for about six months but was let out after 3 for good behavior.” – From Small Town Inertia.

In the seventies and eighties a generation of British photographers documented life at the sharp end of the Conservative Thatcher government’s drive towards de-industrialisation. This process, which was the consequence of policies aimed at liberalising the economy for the benefit of a minority, turned parts of the country upside down. Long standing sources of employment disappeared almost overnight, dropping entire towns into unemployment. The fabric of communities, which had once been woven closely around these industries, began to rapidly fray apart. These events are now history, but many are still living with the consequences.

Now, three decades on, a new generation of photographers are recording the detrimental economic campaign of yet another Conservative government. Forget the shallow neologism of ‘compassionate conservatism’, this new campaign is not so much a war on poverty, but a war of poverty. It is an onslaught, directed against the poor, the ill, and the weak, and intended either to push them into a narrowly proscribed form of ‘useful’ employment or else to make their already difficult circumstances nothing short of unbearable. It is a campaign waged through the proxy of a welfare system created in order to help those most in need, but which has been cynically re-engineered to eliminate its capacity to care.

J.A. Mortram must be amongst the most visible and vocal of the photographers documenting the consequences of this campaign against the most vulnerable in our society. Small Town Inertia, Mortram’s dispatches from the Norfolk town of Dereham, comprises a series of narratives that take us inside the homes, lives and memories of people he has come to know in the town. For one reason or another these people have all been relegated to the fringes of the community, by illness, accident, misfortune. Things which could befall any of us, at any time.

Like many of the best photographers, Mortram’s chosen subject is one he has first-hand experience of, as he juggles his commitment to tell these stories with his own responsibilities as a carer in his family home. Heavy though the logistical and emotional burden of these dual responsibilities must be, it means Mortram can bring to bear an empathy and understanding of the difficulties his subjects face which is rare to see in the often patronisingly paternalistic genre of ‘socially concerned’ documentary photography. It also has practical benefits for some of his subjects, with Mortram sometimes helping them navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the modern welfare state.

Mortram’s beautiful photographs and accompanying interviews communicate the complex pasts and painfully difficult presents of his subjects. One of the most affecting series follows on David, a local man rendered blind by a bicycle accident and now isolated following the death of his mother. Mortram’s interviews with David scrupulously avoid turning him into the embodiment of a medical condition, as other photographers would. Instead David appears to us a rounded person, with complex thoughts and feelings about his predicament. In a beautiful, meandering monologue he muses on loss in its many forms, the nature of sight and the strange behaviour of memory.

Mortram sometimes holds off photographing for months or years. Getting to know people through repeated contact, they are in many cases much more his friends than his photographic subjects. In the process of forming these relationships he has a knack for teasing something out the enormous potential in people, something which is easy to dismiss, or miss entirely. In another series Mortram focuses on Tilney1, a man living with schizotypal and obsessive compulsive disorders. But what is also revealed is that Tilney1 is an avid poet and artist who uses his artwork as a way to explore and document his condition, producing large diagrams mixing image and text in idiosyncratic ways.

Despite recording the precise events of individual lives, Mortram’s tight vignettes seem to stand for something far bigger. For all its specificity, Small Town Inertia’s dispatches could be coming to us from almost anywhere in the country. It should be a stark reminder to us all that the state sanctioned inertia which holds lives in limbo isn’t just limited to this small market town, but to every region, every city, and every walk of life. The same lives are being led in our own communities, the same suffering is taking place, and there are the same stories to tell. Except these are not just stories, they are statements, accounts, and one day they will be histories also. Testimonies of what happens when a state turns its back on its citizens.

(Critical transparency: Mortram approached me about writing a piece about his work and this essay was originally published in The New British, December 2014)