MOG has been off under the fig tree pondering the state of the world and, more importantly, preparing for the long winter haul. He found himself in the middle of a nasty daydream. He thought he was back in the 1980s, witnessing flint-faced politicians methodically smashing up the post-war social consensus in Britain. Tabloid images of violent confrontations surged through his groggy mind: miners screaming at strike-breaking policemen, poll-tax rioters terrorising West End shoppers; and images of forlorn mothers with tearful children waiting for hours to pick up crumbs in depressing Social Security offices.
He came to with a start and found himself overwhelmed with a nagging sense of deja-vu. Today’s headlines echoed triumphantly the same mean spirit of 30 years ago: Get the Scroungers, End to the Gravy Train, The Party’s Over etc…
Mog fell into an instant depression, then cheered up when he remembered that the 1980s was a decade of buoyant, creative and committed photojournalism in the UK; photographers were prepared to exercise their social concerns by investigating the momentous changes happening around them.
Miners Strike 1984/85 – Police charge pickets at Orgreave coke works, near Sheffield, May 1984. © John Sturrock
For example, the year 1980 saw the founding of Network Photographers, a co-operative of liberal-minded and young(ish) photojournalists whose basic instincts recognised that Thatcherism was going to be a period of rich pickings for those that had eyes to see and a disposition to communicate. As the 80s staggered on, these photographers produced some remarkable and revealing work. John Sturrock’s in-depth coverage of the miners’ strike of 1984-5 not only illuminated the events in the form of powerful and creative news coverage but also lasted the test of time: on the 25th anniversary of the strike in 2009, Sturrock’s images appeared all over the press, achieving almost, dare I say, iconic status as documentary witness.
Sturrock’s experience also bears out truisms that Mog has stressed with no doubt repetitive frequency in his teaching of photojournalism students namely: 1) that if you want to get close to a story, you have to stay with it because in-and-out photography seldom works and 2) there’s seldom any such thing as wasted time if you photograph with the right spirit and approach – good work has a way of surfacing in the most unexpected circumstances. Incidentally, many will be relieved to hear that Mog has now hung up his gown and mortar board after perhaps too many years in academia and would just like to slip in his job seeker’s plea before the editor notices.
Mog digresses, back to the photojournalism of the 80s. Memorable indeed and shockingly under-recognised was Neil Libbert’s surreptitious photography in Social Security offices in London and his work among the long-term homeless in the “Bullring” under Waterloo Bridge, images that were extraordinarily poetic and yet hard-hitting and challenging at the same time. The seemingly intractable problems of Northern Ireland were chronicled consistently by Network photographers, and especially by Mike Abrahams, powerful work that challenged conventional wisdom and remains to this day an important record of that conflict.
Dawn Raid © Mike Abrahams
By the 1990s, the Network mob had grown older, had children and mortgages, and in some cases, second marriages and alimony to pay. Perhaps understandably, they were less prepared to get down and dirty in the murky world of British social life. Besides, Thatcher was knifed in the back in 1990 (who can forget where they were when she went? “Rejoice!”, said the nation, parroting her Falkland’s victory mantra). Life in the UK became a little calmer as a result and photographers looked elsewhere for excitement.
Mog had the dubious pleasure of curating Network’s 21st anniversary exhibition, Beyond the Façade, at the Guardian Newsroom, shortly before the agency went down the plug-hole, having by choice or negligence failed to notice the digital revolution. The work that Network produced during the 1980’s was in many ways a definitive record of social and political life at a most turbulent time in the UK’s history. It will undoubtedly be of enormous benefit to social historians in future years. Sadly, many of the younger generation of photographers seem completely unaware of what went on under Thatcher and have little or no knowledge of how photojournalists of that era responded to the savage fragmentation of British life.
What is the point of all this Moggish nostalgia, I hear you cry? The world has moved on, we don’t care anymore about the stagnated, tired old reportage tradition in British photojournalism. We are wiser now, cooler too, and we recognise that it is imperative to have at all times a personal point of view, an agenda and above all, a conceptual overview to superimpose on our photography. Gender, identity, sexuality, perception, time and space, these are the defining issues of today, not dull exploration of social so-called reality.
Ardoyne, Belfast © Mike Abrahams
Mog begs to differ. He wishes to issue a call to arms to emerging photojournalists. Be aware, we are on the brink of a social and cultural revolution that in all likelihood will make Thatcherism seem mild and innocuous by comparison. Too many young photographers based in the UK seem obsessed with looking abroad for stories and inspiration. Get real, chaps – the exotic is no longer Out There, it is here on your doorstep. (Why did Mog have to wait to read Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine to find out about a group of twitchers who regularly go up Tower 42 in the City of London at dawn to observe, chart and photograph peregrines, falcons, red kites, etc.?) British cities are extraordinary melting pots, throwing up endless and remarkable story ideas, both hard-edged and gentle. Britain is in ferment.
Mog is thinking 30 years ahead. Where are the Networks of today? Who will produce the lasting images of the coming decades and provide us with ongoing visual interpretation? Are we going to have to rely on the anodyne and often formulaic coverage of TV to show us how it was? We need to have a lasting visual record of the awful consequences of social engineering and it’s up to you.