Writing on photography

Review: Deeds Not Words at The Photographer’s Gallery

Many photographers of a documentary or journalistic bent profess to wanting to change the world with their pictures. Relatively few really seem able to do this in practice. Often once the photographs are taken and published in the usual places there seems to be little left that can be done with them to shape opinion and drive change. Mark Neville however has taken the campaigning potential of photography to new and interesting places, including with Deeds not Words his work on the town of Corby which is currently on show at The Photographers Gallery.

Corby is a small Northamptonshire town, and once a centre of the British steel industry. Following nationalisation in 1967 steel production at Corby gradually demised, and by the eighties local production had ended completely. The town was left to deal with the toxic legacy of the industry, and efforts began to reclaim the vast area of land that had once been the British steel site. An increase in birth defects in the town however led to claims that the reclamation efforts were being poorly managed by the local council, who were trucking heavily polluted material through the centre of Corby and making no attempt prevent contaminants escaping into the air.

These birth defects led the families of the so-called ‘Corby sixteen’ to successfully take the council to court, a landmark case which for the first time established a connection between airborne toxins and birth defects. Neville’s photographs are only indirectly about the case, the majority making no obvious reference to it. Most show scenes from the town’s social life; carnival queens going bowling, highland dancers warming up, pensioners dancing to a Frank Sinatra impersonator. Neville’s intention perhaps is to show something of the social cohesion and community identity of a place that few of the policy makers he intends to influence will ever come within fifty miles of.

The only photographic indication of the contamination of the area comes in the form of two portrait series scattered amongst the others. Each series consists of three photographs of a young man in the process of bursting a balloon with a pin, the balloon at different stages of disintegration in each shot. The photographs are striking enough to briefly distract a viewer noticing that in each case the hand holding the balloon isn’t quite right, they are missing fingers or it is badly scarred, the only visible manifestation of the effects of the steel pollution. These photographs strike a balance between highlighting the debilitating impact of the birth defects, while not photographing those affected in a sensationalistic or voyeuristic way, and similtaneously jar against the unstaged normality of the Neville’s other photographs.

Returning to the campaigning role of this work, Neville crucially does rather more than just photograph Corby. In the book that he eventually produced of the project he weds his photographs to a comprehensive array of research on the case, along with interviews with affected families and testimony from experts. Rather than publish the book for public consumption (he notes in a video interview accompanying the show, that photobooks ‘often just end up on the coffee tables of white middle class folk like me’) Neville instead disseminated the book to the 433 local authorities across the United Kingdom and relevant environmental agencies abroad. His intention in doing this was to try and inform and thereby prevent a repeat of what happened at Corby.

It’s this extension of the life of the photographs beyond the normal photographic outputs and audiences that makes Deeds not Words really interesting. By setting out to influence a small, targeted audience, but crucially one which is actually able to make a difference, by speaking to them in their own language, as well as in a photographic one, Neville has shown how photographers can do more than just passively hope their photographs influence those in positions of power. Deeds not Words is on at The Photographers Gallery until 29th September 2013.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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