Talking 'bout My Generation
A View from East London of The Community Photography Movement
by Shirley Read
Writing about community photography is something of a daunting task. Not simply because of the complexity and diversity of its history the relative paucity of source material, because it is disputed territory or because the 1970s seem more than a life time ago but because trying to define community photography is so difficult.
Community photography was not a single movement but a loose term used to describe a huge diversity of practices and politics - it was above all a movement of very many small projects often working in isolation and completely independent of each other. Furthermore many photographers and organisations working in the area resisted being called community photographers or community projects. This was because they saw the term as derogatory and implying amateurism at a time when photography was struggling for recognition and funding.
It was also a part, but a very independent part, of the community arts movement which began in the 1960s, flowered in the 1970s and had almost disappeared by the end of the 1980s. Community photography, unlike community arts, was initially about class and the power of photography and can be seen as a part of the post war democratisation of Britain. It developed and fed into the debates around representation, identity, race and gender of the later 1970s and 1980s. It was also inextricably linked with other aspects of photography - an organisation like Camerawork, for example, with its own building, darkrooms, gallery and magazine, saw its remit as local, national and international and the ideas of community photography as only a part of the policy of each of these discrete areas.
We tend to forget just how much photography has changed over the last thirty and more years so some background is crucial to understanding community photography. The roots of the movement tie in the stifling conformity of post war Britain where nice girts wore white gloves to church, didn't eat, drink or smoke in the street. Much of Britain thought that the British Empire still existed. It comes out of the same impetus to change that created the phenomenon of 'swinging London' and had students demonstrating on the streets in 1968.
It also emerges from a changed perception of photography. For most of the 1960s photography was not a subject you could take at 0, A or degree level. It tended to be seen as a technical skill, a trade or craft rather than an art form and was taught as such. Guildford College of Art, for instance, which was one of the major routes to becoming a photographer, is said to have had only three books on photography as art in its library in the late 1960s. Photographers were not highly regarded and career opportunities in photography were fairly limited, mostly to journalism or commercial work. Photographers were often seen as 'people who showed up at weddings' It goes almost without saying that photographers were usually male and white.
It was in the 1960s and into the 1970s that photography really took off in Britain and the idea of 'independent' photography began to emerge. The country was changing rapidly after the stagnation of the immediate post war years and to many photography seemed the medium which would express that change. Photographers like David Bailey, whose friends were fitm and pop stars, became media personalities. Antonioni's film Blow Up made photography seem a glamorous career. The images of photographers like Nick Ut were recognised as a major factor in ending American involvement in Vietnam. It was also a time when people started to have more money, cameras and film were cheaper and easier to use and photography became both accessible and popular. Photography galleries like Impressions in York, Side in Newcastte, the Hatf Moon Gallery in East London and The Photographers Gallery in Covent Garden were all established in the early 1970s. Barry Lane was appointed as Photography Officer by the Arts Council and starting funding photography.
All this meant that photography attracted a new kind of practitioner. Usually young, politicised, graduates of university or art college, many of them were not trained in photography but were attracted to it because it was exciting, accessible and glamorous. Crucially too it appeared to offer the opportunity to effect social change.
In 1971 the Association of Community Artists was set up. Owen Kelly in Community, Art and the State published in 1984 describes community arts as having three separate elements: an interest in creating new and liberating forms of expression; a movement by fine artists out of the gallery and into the streets and the emergence of a new kind of political activist who believed that creativity was a central toot in any kind of radical struggle.
He quotes the Greater London Arts Association policy paper on community arts which defines it as an approach which frequently "involves people on a collective basis, encourages the use of a collective statement but does not neglect individual development or the need for individual expression... Community arts proposes the use of art to effect social change and affect social policies, and encompasses the expression of political action...". The paper also pointed out that "community arts activists operate in areas of deprivation".
However, while many photographers shared these approaches they also resisted the idea of catting themselves artists, believing it to be an elitist term, and many photography organisations remained outside the Association of Community Artists. In 1979 Camerawork produced a special issue, Photography in the Community. The editorial stated "we believe that the camera can be used as a revolutionary instrument", that "community photography can actively involve people in social change" and that "people can use photography to make their own demands and help to make them free".
In this issue Paul Carter, founder of the Blackfriars Photography Project, who was funded by the Arts Council in 1978 to research community photography, identified three different areas of practice. These were 'alternative' journalism when a photographer would work with and for a whole range of community campaigns; the documentation of the community in which the photographer lived and the provision of resources in the form of equipment, darkrooms and teaching.
Camerawork also identified a range of other community photography resources and projects which came within Carter's definition. These included exhibition making, publishing, establishing archives and educational projects. Exhibitions could be cheaply produced, laminated for ease of touring and shown in a range of non gallery venues including pubs, laundrettes, housing estates and park railings. Publishing included both community newspapers and books like the Working Lives series which included autobiographical accounts from a WEA writing class in Centerprise, a community publishing project in Hackney. Archives projects such as Manchester Studies and the Island History Trust collected family photographs to preserve a working class and local history.
Shared concerns were with 'demystifying' photography, with working collectively, with providing access, with prioritising process over production values and with the dissemination of information and ideas in a variety of forms. But these concerns were interpreted in a variety of ways. Different groups developed their own areas of work and theory which often conflicted and were often debated with varying degrees of acrimony. Camerawork gallery for example, took the idea of alternative journalism to include challenging the mainstream press on issues such as El Salvador whereas Mediumwave saw all photograph making as problematic and worked with pinhole cameras which they claimed raised "serious questions about the authorship claimed by photographers and the nature of the reality which they are alleged to record".
Photography in the early 1970s was a relatively untheorised discipline. Key works by, for example, Barthes, Burgin, Berger and Sontag had yet to be published and in the absence of a body of theory to draw on practitioners turned to ideas from a wide range of sources including education, film and politics. In Photography/Politics: Two Simon Watney pointed out that "the revolution in critical theory which has taken place in Britain since the early 1970s has always been, in effect, a dialogue with Marxism". Many of the debates of the period came out of practical politics and from contacts with a whole range of groups working in similar ways, groups such as History Workshop, the Workers Education Association, Screen magazine, the International Marxist Group (IMG), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Rock against Racism campaign. The impact of magazines like Camerawork and Ten.8 was in part due to the fact that there was so littte photographic publishing.
Funding was a key problem for most community photography projects, many of which were 'funded to fail', that is given just enough funding to struggle to survive for a time before exhaustion set in and the project collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. Most of the community photography organisations set up in the 1970s have not survived. Some have closed completely white others were absorbed into other projects during the continuous rounds of funding cuts in the 1980s and 1990s. Archive projects like Manchester Studies and the Island History Trust have stopped taking in new photographs but have not been broken up.
The reasons for the failure to survive were in part a result of the way community photography developed. Owen Kelly points out that the community arts movement had no clear understanding of its own history and that "the movement has staggered drunkenly from one direction to another. In effect the policies of the funding agencies have determined who was, and who was not, perceived as community artists". As important was the fact that organisations and practitioners had little contact with each other. Community photography had no central organisation, training or networking systems and lessons learned by one organisation were not passed on to others.
However, many of the photographers working in or around the area of community photography were able to continue to work in similar ways, developing what they had learned and applying it to new projects. Judy Harrison, now a Senior Lecturer at Portsmouth University, founded the Mount Pleasant Media Workshop in Southampton in 1979 as the first photography project to be run by and within the Black and Asian community to address issues of anti-racism. She suggests that in her experience community photography broke the narrow mould of documentary photography in the 1970s and paved the way for a more autobiographical style of work through its engagement rith the identity politics of the community.
Gina Glover, a director of Photofusion, learned photography as part of a local campaign to save a hospital. Her work then was all black and white, photo-journalistic and had a clear message. Over twenty years later she is still making work in hospitals and is artist in residence at Guys Hospital in London. She says that white the circumstances of her work have changed her central concern has always been to give a voice to the people she is working with and that has not changed.
How can one attempt to measure the success or failure of community photography? It was part of a process which started to democratise the arts in Britain. If museums today are not the stuffy and elitist organisations they were in the 1960s part of that change is because of the ideas and challenges posed by the community arts movement. Ideas about culture came up from the grass roots of community activity and changed artistic and photographic practice, then the thinking of funding bodies and, through them, most of the institutions of the arts.
Many of the ideas of community photography, which were seen as revolutionary in the 1970s, were later absorbed into the mainstream of policy making. Ideas about educational programmes and access were pioneered by community groups and tater became funding policy. Camerawork, for example, built a disabled access darkroom and lavatory in 1980 because these were priorities for community arts organisations. This was long before provision for the disabled became enshrined in funding policy but their existence and use remained an argument for the policy. The Public Arts movement of the 1990s and 'new' ideas about exhibiting in non gallery venues have drawn on the experience of community arts. Community photography projects in schools and hospitals also paved the way for a whole range of artist in residence projects by making visible the possibilities of such projects.
Most crucial is that community photography was one of the challenges to the prevalence of documentary photography in the early 1970s and contributed to the emergence of independent photography and a much wider range of practices and politics in the 1980s and 1990s. A comprehensive history of community photography has yet to be written. It needs to be done.