The story of Dereham’s decline is one played out across the country. A once thriving market town located 15 miles or so from the bustling metropolis that is Norwich, it now plays host to the same identikit new build estates and chain stores that make up the bulk of Britain in the 21st Century.
One figure more attuned to the changing rhythms of life in this nondescript Norfolk town than most is photographer JA Mortram. His long-running documentary series Small Town Inertia began life as a blog before Colin Wilkinson of Bluecoat Press reached out with the offer of publishing a book based on the work collated online.
The result is both a virtual and physical testament to usually untold stories that congregate and coagulate in towns hit hard by austerity. Small Town Inertia doesn’t seek to “paint a portrait” of Dereham, rather, it is a communique between photographer and citizen, a raw, stark, and unflinching account of loneliness, poverty, neglect, mental illness, and deprivation.
“I didn’t, and don’t, care about making work as an ‘artist’, it’s more that I have a duty to document, to amplify the cries around me,” JA tells It’s Nice That. “Everyone has a voice yet in these times it’s becoming harder and harder to have a sole voice heard.”
Citing the likes of Don McCullin, Darcy Padilla, and Brenda Ann Kenneally as inspirations on a level of “personality and conduct and morality,” JA is keen to stress to INT that the figures who inhabit his photographic landscape aren’t mere subjects. “I’m not,” he says, “a patriarchal figure in this, not above them. We are all in this together: they’re not subjects, but human beings, people, my community. The photographer is never the important component, the people sharing and their testimony is.”
Indeed, testimony is as crucial to JA’s work as photography. Small Town Inertia is, if you like, an attempt to blend the pioneering oral history work of American writer Studs Terkel with the blunt visual social realism of a Donna Ferrato or a Eugene Richards.
JA – who is a full-time carer for his disabled mother – describes his approach to the project as “long form”, noting that he only makes work with locals who have a “burning desire to share, a passion to transpose their reality into the lives of those that have little to no experience of what life is like for those enduring the hardships and struggles of life living under austerity.”
He talks, at length, over days, weeks, months, years, with the figures in his photographs, crafting real relationships with real people which last long after the lens has been put away. These are people who have been plagued by the real world ramifications of budgetary cuts to housing, schooling, mental health provision – and their story is one being told throughout the UK.
As deeply human and political as the films of Ken Loach, Small Town Intertia is a masterclass in contemporary documentary photography – a brutal indictment of the human cost of the Conservative’s programme of austerity.
Photos from Small Town Inertia are on display at Side Gallery in Newcastle until 24 March 2019.
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