Should only working-class photographers take pictures of working-class places?
Speaking to four photographers documenting the 93, Barnsley, Appalachia and Jaywick respectively, we investigate if there is a ‘right way’ to document low-income areas. And ultimately, if outsiders should.
From Roger Mayne’s work on a soon-to-be-demolished Southam Street in the 50s to Martin Parr’s early fascination with the North, photography has long set up shop in low-income areas. As equipment became more accessible and photographic courses more numerous, an increasing number of practitioners have emerged – yet a particular kind of working class documentation still prevails. Crucially, with recent statistics noting that only 16 per cent of creative workers are from working-class backgrounds, its authors are often not working-class themselves, and are frequently drawn to such territories for their ‘vibrance’ and struggles.
But, when a community does not have access to a photographer in their midst, does it not deserve representation? How, then, can a visitor do this ethically? What harm can a photograph pose to a community? This leads to another, perhaps more urgent consideration: if a territory has only ever been shot to its detriment by predominantly wealthy outsiders, should visitors continue to photograph there at all?
“Maybe it’s always better to come from the place, because you understand the mood, the code and the feeling of people there.”Marvin Bonheur
When Monsieur Bonheur (Marvin Bonheur) was growing up, he frequently saw his neighbourhood Seine-Saint-Denis, also known by its department number 93, in the news. Whenever he did, the northeast suburb of Paris – the poorest part of mainland France according to Insee – was shown amidst violent clashes. Photographs exclusively publicising a slim section of life in the neighbourhood were used to build a reputation of the 93 as being unsafe, and as an incubator for terrorism. This would come to shape not only the area’s notoriety to neighbouring Paris and other countries, but the future of a photographer in his youth.
One day, in response to a co-worker’s challenge to prove the beauty he knows within the 93, Marvin decided to type his home address into Google Images. The first result he saw was a burning car. Photography (Marvin’s in particular) has since become a tool to show the “many good things” burgeoning in the suburb. Marvin’s first work on the region, for instance, centred around capturing places that held personal memories for the photographer: “The first place where I met my best friend, the place where I had my first kiss, my first fight.” Demonstrating a level of photographic intimacy only possible for a local, he says, “I returned to my childhood in my mind.”
This raises the question of whether it’s necessary to add personal experience to the photographic process. Marvin considers: “Especially when it’s a difficult place, maybe it’s always better to come from the place, because you understand the mood, the code and the feeling of people there.” For outsiders looking to shoot – which is something Marvin does believe is possible with the right sensibility – he suggests the exact opposite approach, one of open detachment. “You have to take distance, because if you arrive with an idea already but you don’t know the place, you’re fucked.” Namely, because you’ll be looking for one thing: what you already think of the area.
“If you arrive with an idea already but you don’t know the place, you’re fucked.”Marvin Bonheur
In many places, communities are familiar with visiting photographers looking to find poverty. When Sandra Mickiewicz first went to shoot Jaywick, northeast Essex, for her final degree project, locals assumed she was a journalist trying to make another “bad story about them”, she says. In 2019, Channel 4 – and the BBC before them via a similarly titled film – released a documentary about Jaywick called The most deprived town in Britain; in 2018 an image taken in Jaywick was also in-accurately used for a pro-Trump poster, to warn about poverty in America during the US midterm elections.
“The reality is that they are poor people, but they can handle it. They can be happy at the same time.”Sandra Mickiewicz
Coming from a small village in northern Poland, from which her parents moved to the UK for “a better future”, Sandra was seeking to show that there are places in every country facing economic and social struggles. Turning her lens on everyday life in the Jaywick community, Sandra recounts: “My main intention was to show the place in a good way [...] I just wanted to find something a bit different about them; how they’re trying to cope with their everyday life.”
In terms of her approach to those first visits, firstly, there was minimal research. “I think the best way is to just go to the place,” the photographer states. Holding off from taking portraits initially, Sandra quickly met an organiser of the Jaywick community group, the Happy Club, who introduced her to residents. All in all, the series took a year to shoot and relied heavily on the trust and relationships she built over that period. When asked if she ever faced ethical challenges, Sandra says the main thing to bear in mind for a project like this is to listen – “listen to what [subjects] say to you”. Sandra never experienced doubts on whether she should take an image, owing to these open communication lines. “Especially if I ask and they say yes. If someone says no to me then that means no, then I just go away and do something else.”
Sandra's guiding principle was to show things “honestly”. She adds, “The reality is that they are poor people, but they can handle it. They can be happy at the same time.” Though the series shows the lighter sides of life in Jaywick, Sandra says if she had run more negative stories, the work would have reflected it.
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Sandra Mickiewicz: Happy Club (Copyright © Sandra Mickiewicz)
Positivity – particularly this toss up between positive representation and honesty – is a thorny part of this conversation, and so is intent. Stacy Kranitz is a photographer who is sceptical of documenting a place with the intention of solely offsetting negative stereotypes. “I really believe in the deepest core of my being that this is not the right way to tell a story about a place that has a lot of trauma,” she says. For Stacy, images that depict positivity in a silo – ignoring everything else – and images that document trauma can be held on two sides of the same coin, representing a community with only one “revisionist” story.
“An image that functions well on Instagram is not necessarily an image that functions well in terms of showing the nuances of a community that is disenfranchised.”Stacy Kranitz
This was what happened to Appalachia, the eastern US region the Kentucky-born photographer has been capturing for over 10 years. Since the war on poverty was announced in America in 1964, photographers and journalists have fled to Appalachia to represent deprivation in the area. Othering and darker portrayals swiftly amassed from good intentions, attempting to ‘help’ residents by disseminating their needs. “They just told the same version of the story, over and over and over again [...] that’s really where I think the problems of photography [there] appeared,” she says. Stacy has come to believe successful documentation can only come with multiple depictions of place, to illustrate its dimensionality. The only community-based organisations that succeeded in Appalachia integrated both insiders and outsiders.
Then there’s the question of how to mitigate the harm photography can pose. For starters, Stacy says time is vital – both to sit with a community and an image before rushing to publish it online. “An image that functions well on Instagram is not necessarily an image that functions well in terms of showing the nuances of a community that is disenfranchised,” she expresses. Thinking beyond the pictorial also changes how you shoot. When facing paranoia, Stacy will make space to listen to where a person’s trauma with the camera stems from. In each instance, she considers if photography can evolve the narrative for the participant; if not, the shot is sacrificed. “There is no image that is more important than a person’s feelings,” Stacy concludes.
“There is no image that is more important than a person’s feelings.”Stacy Kranitz
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Stacy Kranitz: As It Was Give(n) To Me (Copyright © Stacy Kranitz)
This gets to the core of the issue. A photograph is a click, and its effects reach into a subject’s future. “That person has to take home that experience of having a camera shoved in their face”, says photographer Broth Tarn, and “I have no idea what that person is going through or what sort of life they live.” Broth is deeply aware of the responsibility that comes with the camera; much of the restraint he’s built up now – even with a practice built on a “snapshot style” and “gut instinct” – comes from having a connection to the place he’s photographing.
Located up a hill in Barnsley, his home is the subject behind much of his work. In one of his pictures, for example, he depicts a slope and a kid sprinting through a field. Broth used to run up the same hill from the shop as a kid, so he felt it was right to take that image. “I’ve grown up here and I’ve been through what a lot of the people are going through in my photographs. So I approach it with respect.” Broth tells me how a lot of people categorise his work as a romanticisation of Yorkshire. Yet this romanticisation of place feels entirely different in the work of a photographer who has known it long enough to feel its beauty in their bones.
“That person has to take home that experience of having a camera shoved in their face.”Broth Tarn
So is empathy best achieved when you know something inside out? Broth recounts a talk he went to with Martin Parr a few years earlier, in which the photographer was running through slides taken in working-class areas. “He was talking about the people in this photo as if he were in a fucking zoo. They described some images as grotesque; I saw that on his website the other day. For him to enter a working-class area, and to describe something as grotesque, it’s disgusting. He’s got no right to do that.”
Broth, like all three other photographers, confirms that an outsider can, of course, photograph a working-class place accurately, so long as they meet up with a local who can guide them through the area and its history. Ethics aside, Broth says the strongest work he’s seen is from people living in and amongst it. “There is a trend; for whatever reason, it’s cool to be from a Northern town now.” But he adds: “If you’re not a local you won’t know the spots, then that’ll come through.”
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Broth Tarn: Missy Field (Copyright © Broth Tarn)
Although there are no concrete guidelines – no correct amount of research, roadmap or years spent to request consent for documenting these areas – each photographer has stressed the importance of following the lead of a community. This, in part, also illustrates the problem. In the documentary medium, ethics must be constructed on a case-by-case basis. As such, places with complex histories which are perceived as ‘interesting’ become testing grounds for emerging – and established – photographers to figure out how to shoot them. And often, people get caught in the crossfire.
Broth Tarn: Ashton (Copyright © Broth Tarn)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.