Image-Maker in Residence: Paul Sng

Paul Sng is this month’s Image Maker in Residence. Below, he introduces the work we’ll be sharing throughout the month of May over on our Instagram. If you are interested in being ‘in residence’ with us, see our guidelines here.  

By Paul Sng

As I write this, Britain enters its fifth week under lockdown as result of the government’s Covid-19 virus protection measures. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson – who was hospitalized and moved to intensive care with the virus two weeks ago – has now returned to work. Johnson’s hospitalization and withdrawal had temporarily removed him from criticism of the government’s failings over the pandemic. Now that he is back in 10 Downing Street, there is nowhere to hide. Much public scrutiny and critique has addressed perceived shortcomings in the government’s response, which – it is argued – compounded stark inequalities. Covid-19 has made the imbalance in our society all the more visible.  

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is a book of stories that are rarely heard. It’s a book about people who are often marginalized in the media, neglected by politicians, and ignored within society. It’s a book about identity, injustice and inequality, social issues that are affecting millions of people across the UK. Most importantly, it’s a book about how people have found hope among the ruins and survived through difficult times.

The idea for the book arose from a documentary I co-directed in 2015. Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain followed the Nottingham band Sleaford Mods on tour in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, visiting some of the neglected, broken-down and boarded-up parts of the UK that many people prefer to ignore. In each town or city, we met with local people and asked how unpopular government policies had changed their areas and what, if anything, they were doing to resist them. To describe the people we met as ‘ordinary’ would do them a disservice, given the extraordinary efforts they had taken to protect and preserve their communities. From Stockton-on-Tees to Southampton, Barnsley, Lincoln and many other neglected pockets of the UK, what we saw wasn’t ‘Broken Britain’, but rather the front line of nationwide resistance.

In December 2016, I started to think about how a book of portraits and stories might serve as a vehicle for people whose lives have been blighted by government failures and neglect to have their say. The idea was developed to focus on people affected by social issues including austerity, deindustrialisation, housing, welfare cuts, and the rise in nationalism and xenophobia. In consideration of John Grierson’s formulation that documentary is ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, each story is told by each person in their own voice; less ethnography and more direct testimony.

Marginalised communities are rarely heard from in the mainstream media. It took the Brexit vote for politicians to take notice of the anger and frustration in areas that voted predominantly to leave the EU. In some respects, the EU referendum was also a referendum on the poor state of public services, the lack of affordable housing, and a protest vote against the government. In his report Did Austerity Cause Brexit? Thiemo Fetzer suggests that government austerity policies directly led to the UK voting to leave the EU.

‘The fiscal contraction brought about by the Conservative-led coalition government starting in 2010 was sizable,’ he writes. ‘Aggregate real government spending on welfare and social protection decreased by around 16% per capita. At the district-level, which administer most welfare programmes, spending per person fell by 23.4% in real terms between 2010 and2015, varying dramatically across districts, ranging from 46.3% to6.2% with the sharpest cuts in the poorest areas.’

The assumption that the people who voted to leave the EU were ‘stupid’ and ‘ignorant’ misses the point. Politicians were in dereliction of their duties by failing to pay attention to the concerns of people in areas that have suffered for decades. Furthermore, the sweeping accusation that all Brexit voters were motivated by racism and xenophobia is restrictive and requires further unpacking. Unless we are willing to examine and address the root causes of why sections of the disenfranchised are being seduced by far-right ideology, we risk empowering those in positions of influence to manipulate even more people. Empathy, meaningful conversations, and open debate are crucial. People need their voices to be heard. We should all listen more.

Some of the people featured in Invisible Britain are grassroots campaigners who work outside of Westminster or the formal structures of local politics. Their politics take place on the streets, and many have been incredibly effective in working to resist austerity and in campaigning against injustice. Many of the people who tell us something about their lives in these pages have been ignored or misrepresented in the media, or feel out of sync with the government and politicians. This book was designed to amplify their voices. It’s also a reaction to the ‘poverty porn’ that has come to influence how many people view those on lower incomes or who claim benefits. Negative and stereotyping narratives encourage the public to adopt detrimental opinions about council estates, benefit claimants, migrants, refugees and other minority groups. The damage done by programmes such as Benefits Street, Skint and On Benefits and Proud is immeasurable; they stigmatise not only people who claim benefits, but also people who live in social housing, making it easier for politicians and property developers to demolish council estates altogether.

Invisible Britain wasn’t designed to be a comprehensive and definitive representation of modern Britain, but rather to provide a snapshot. Neither I nor our curator, Laura Dicken, went looking for sensationalist tales; instead we focused on the politics that occur in people’s daily lives and their hopes for the future. These stories are from individuals whose lives have been affected by decisions made by politicians, so we felt it was important to include a range of political views, including some that I don’t share. We also included new and emerging photographers alongside those already established in documentary photography.

The book was intended to be the first step towards setting up an Invisible Britain platform, which will work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to to tell their stories in the arts and media. I’m still hopeful that this can happen when we come out of the other side of the pandemic, whatever shape our society is in. The platform would also run workshops on the creative arts, a mentorship scheme and provide practical support and advice regarding creative opportunities, as well as offering paid work placements on film and television productions. I’m currently looking for people to work with to develop Invisible Britain, and do something to make the arts and media more inclusive of people whose voices aren’t heard often enough. If you’re interested in getting involved, I’d love to hear from you.

Paul Sng is editor of Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, published by Policy Press and available with a 20% discount here. Paul’s next book, This Separated Isle, explores concepts of identity and nationhood in modern Britain and is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, which you can support via this link. For more information on the project visit: Twitter: @paulsng and @invisiblebrit

Photo credit: Bobby Beasley. Taken from the book Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, edited by Paul Sng.

Read Kate Haddow’s book review of Invisible Britain for The Sociological Review.

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