Exercise 2-2: Survival Programmes

Read the article ‘Survival Programmes’ in Ei8ht Magazine (V5N1, June 2006) and make notes. 

The article ‘Survival Programmes’ in Ei8ht Magazine, June 2006, details the project by the Exit Photography Group that culminated in the 1982 book ‘Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities.’ 

The Exit group were three young photographers, Chris Steele-PerkinsPaul Trevor, and Nick Battye, working in the late 1970s as a collective to document what they saw as the social injustice of poverty in Britain at the time. The Ei8ht article describes the work as “a brutally honest document of the times”, one that grappled with issues of race, religion, class and injustice. Marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of ‘Survival Programmes‘, the Ei8ht article praises the potency of the work while lamenting that rather than standing as “a relic of a bygone age” it is a “sorry testament to how little things have changed.” 

The project was active for five years between 1974-1979 with the three photographers working in different parts of the UK (Trevor in Liverpool, Battye in Birmingham and Steele-Perkins in Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Belfast. They all photographer London and Glasgow.) They worked with a shared ethos and approach, making contact with community organisations, building relationships with their subjects and being welcomed into their homes, sleeping on floors, sofas and cheap B&Bs. Everything was shot in black and white, predominately to save money as this could be printed at home, but also, I would imagine because this was still the established aesthetic for serious, documentary work. The collective approach was extended to shared credit for the images. Interaction with the people they photographed was of great importance with those featured being interviewed to create an oral as well as photographic record, ‘Akenfield’ by Ronald Blythe and ‘Let us now praise famous men’ by Walker Evans and James Agee were key influences. In the eventual book, equal space was given to the interviews, photographs were on the right and text on the left, with the words working as a compliment to the images rather than serving as mere captions. The editing process was completed with prints pinned around Trevor’s flat, each photographer discussing the work, agreeing on sequencing and which interviews to include. The book was divided into four chapters – growth, promise, welfare and reaction – a building of tensions from frustration to anger. Steele-Perkins (2014) describes the shared concerns that brought the group together:

“The political/theoretical position we shared was that inner-city poverty was endemic and for an advanced industrial society, intolerable; that poverty, injustice and discrimination was leading to serious social disorder which had the potential to develop to the level currently experienced in Northern Ireland.” 

Bright and Williams (2007: 137) make this analysis of ‘Survival Programmes’: although the photographs are raw and challenging they are also hopeful, “They showed people kicking against adversity rather than submitting to it.” The power of the images is that the sense that the photographers have something important to say seeps through the work, yes, the pictures are raw but they also possess an integrity that does not patronise the people depicted by sanitising what they show nor do they present a relentlessly depressing and hopeless view. An image like this is full of cheeky zest for life. The young people in the picture seem full of vigour and determination to have fun. Contrast this picture of a family at the coast with the work of Martin Parr and to my mind, there can be no doubt that the Exit photographers aimed to identify with the people they photographed. This image reminds me of street photographs of New York with families and children cooling down with water spraying from a fire hydrant, the street becoming a playground. Then there is this picture which is heart-breaking, the pathetic Christmas tree taking centre stage in the middle of the room – to be invited in to this home and allowed to take photographs shows the level of trust between the photographer and their subject. The inclusion of the Queen in the image is a damning reminder of the inequalities in society the collective aimed to expose. I could potentially comment on every image in the series such is the resonance it has with me, when I read about photographing with integrity it is this kind of work that stands out to me. Socially engaged and important work that respects the people in the photographs and strives to give them a voice, this is work that is not about the ego of the photographer but the desire to give a voice to people who have none. I agree with the article that it is a depressing truth that in some ways little seems to have changed since this project, if anything, it could be argued that inequality is increasing now rather than decreasing. What is most depressing is that there appears to be little of this work being undertaken today (someone like Jim Mortram does spring to mind however as a photographer advancing the Exit group ethos.) Most depressing however is the apparent truth that despite best intentions, social documentary photography like this does not have the capacity to change the world for the better.

Survival Programmes was exhibited at the Side Gallery, Newcastle and are part of the Amber collection.

Bibliography: 

Bright, S. & Williams, V. (2007) How We Are: Photographing Britain. London: Tate.

Steele-Perkins, C. (2014) Ideas series: Exit photography group. Photoworks website. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/exit-photography-group/ [accessed 15th August 2017]

Survival programmes. Pps. 12-19 Ei8ht magazine, Vol 5 No.1 June 2006. Available online at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/Foto85.1_SurvivalProgrammes.pdf [accessed 5th August 2017]

Ei8ht magazine, Vol5 No.1, June 2006. Full issue available at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol5no1 [accessed 5th August 2017]

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