The Relative Poverty project

July 6, 2017     Leave a Comment

In this guest blog, photojournalist Les Monaghan charts the development of his show exploring the realities of life for families in his locality

Almost a year ago, I became agitated by an online news article. Over a million people in the UK were living in destitution. Other people too were agitated by this same article. Spending an hour or so with the online trolls, and their wearied opponents, in the Comment is Free section wasn’t healthy. But it made me realise that no matter how earnest, how scrupulously researched a charity’s report, or campaigning journalist’s article, there are swathes of the UK that refuse to believe ‘news’ they don’t agree with. I knew that within a stone’s throw of where I live I could find families in destitution, and one troll was basically daring me to do it –

27 Apr 2016
Statistics and generalisations again. I wonder if an investigative journalist could seek out one of these families. They could remain anonymous. Their history. Living circumstances. Actual income and income source. Tax paid (if any). From income. Expenditure. This would give a real picture of life today in the UK.


Other posters pointed out the flaws in this proposed approach – it’s too subjective.

As writer Owen Jones notes, the Left spend too much time citing facts, figures, and research, whereas those on the Right frame issues in simplistic, domestically based stories that are easy to absorb, and crucially to repeat. I often use the ‘only 0.7% of benefits is falsely claimed’ statistic – but it cuts little ice versus prurient stories of the benefit cheats. There’s plenty of evidence of the power of storytelling, advertisers are using it all around us, and in a way we know that the news is a story too. So I looked again at my practice to see what I could do to help those who are not represented, filmed or written about but are genuinely suffering.

I planned to spend ten days ‘in residence’ with local families. After then Prime Minister David Cameron crassly tried to move the goalposts when asked about families in poverty at Prime Minister’s Questions the project gained a title: Relative Poverty. This also refers to the inherent privilege of the makers (and readers) of any report or documentary. I intended it to be authored by me and the participants. Relative Poverty would be stories – based in fact, as we understand documentaries to be – and the intent was overt: to show the lives lived in as much detail as it takes to overcome the naysayers.

A tall order I know – the troll cited here can dismiss the empirical substance of an entire Joseph Rowntree Foundation report with a few rapid keystrokes before breakfast. But not all those who voted for the last three governments are trolls. Many simply don’t know what’s going on. How to inform them about ‘news’ that doesn’t fit the mainstream media narrative has meant my re-engagement with ideas from photographer and academic Allan Sekula in the late 1970s. After all, what would be the point of making a series and then trying to get it into the Guardian Weekend magazine only for a troll to dismiss it and 99% of the UK population to not see it? Sekula suggested alternative means:

‘I am not suggesting the mass media can be effectively infiltrated. Mass “communication” is almost entirely subject to the pragmatics of the one-way, authoritarian manipulation of consumer “choices”. I think “marginal” spaces have to be discovered and utilised, spaces where issues can be discussed collectively: union halls, churches, high schools, community colleges, community centers, and perhaps only reluctantly, public museums.’

Relative Poverty began touring all 25 of Doncaster’s libraries from 8 May this year. It will be shown in St John’s church, Balby, South Yorkshire, from July and has just been shown in Sheffield Central Library. The exhibit in libraries will hang above bookshelves for one month in each of Doncaster’s libraries, time enough I hope, to quietly nag away at library users and volunteers. Workshops and talks will take place at each venue, as from experience I know that people want to talk about the issues rather than the art.

The aim is to expand through library and church networks to reach as far as we can. For the last three months I’ve been working with a number of families. The strains of living in destitution have meant that many haven’t been able to face taking part in the project at all. Much of my planned collaborative art pieces haven’t materialised and a great deal of the stories are mediated through documentary photographs and written testimony. Two families are anonymous, in a way they reflect those that couldn’t or wouldn’t take part – what right have we after all to pry? Contemporary society is very big on (instant) judgement and I, as a photographer, am well aware of the power of my medium to steal, lie, and cheat subjects of their dignity and more.

New 13-9-17: A new exhibition of the Relative Poverty Project is on from 14 to 23 September 2017 at Sprotbrough Community Library, South Yorkshire. Artist talk 10am Saturday 23 September.
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