An ‘anthropology of ourselves’

Explore the website Humphrey Spender’s Worktown, reflect on Spender’s documentary style and the themes of Worktown, with particular emphasis on the ethics and purpose of the project.

Worktown was a major project in Bolton conducted by Mass Observation (MO), a group founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrison, poet Charles Madge and artist/filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. MO aimed to make an objective, anthropological survey of British working-class life and employed various approaches to the recording of day to day life such as diaries, records and photography, an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ was how Harrison described the aims of the project. The minutiae of everyday life were recorded, for example, the number of chips in a portion. The group shared the belief with many documentarians of the 1930s that in order to understand the world, ordinary lives must be examined with the impartial eye of the social scientist. Bolton was chosen as the location for Worktown as it was viewed as a typical, Northern industrial town and was also home to Lever Brothers. Although the team conducted interviews, the main technique for MO was to observe, generally without the subject’s knowledge. Inevitably, MO were outsiders looking in, as Badger (2001: 78) observes: “The project, although left wing and well meaning, inevitably had the stamp of the Cambridge anthropologist about it.” Indeed, Harrison’s previous project was an anthropological study of Borneo, and, despite Bolton being in his home country, the people that were studied for Worktown would have been just as exotic and removed for him.

Humphrey Spender, a photographer for the Daily Mirror, did most of the photography for Worktown. In line with the rest of Worktown he attempted to take photographs unobserved wherever possible often keeping his Leica under his coat. Spender would have stuck out like a sore thumb in Bolton as these recollections suggest:

“We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-Toms, lopers, snoopers, envelope steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies, society playboys.” (Badger, 2001: 78)

Despite being driven by the anthropological purpose of the project, Spender was uncomfortable with his working methods and the thought he was intruding on his subject’s privacy and there is a reserve evident in his work. Despite being a thorough documentation of Bolton at that time, the images have a cool tone, distance and lack of psychological involvement, although, Spender’s refusal to overdramatise or direct does sit well ethically with the aim of documentary truth and realism – he described his procedure as “allowing things speak for themselves”. (Wells, 2009: 94) In a 1978 interview, Spender recalled the difficulty he found in the process:

“I had to be an invisible spy – an impossibility which I didn’t particularly enjoy trying to achieve…I was somebody from another planet intruding on another way of life…A constant feature of taking the kind of photograph we’re talking about even when people were unaware that they were actually being photographed – was a feeling that I was exploiting the people I was photographing even when…the aim explicitly was to help them.” (Wells, 2009: 94)

Spender’s comments emphasise the social distance between his way of life and that of the people he photographed. These ordinary people were studied as if they were keepers of useful facts to be collected and subjects of representation that were potentially exploited.

Personally, I do not have any problem with the ethics of photographing someone without their knowledge and I can understand the thought process that led to the belief that this form of undercover observation could lead to more truthful outcomes. Clearly however, the members of MO and Spender were clearly visible in Bolton and it is an issue that they apparently did not try to engage and understand the local community on a personal level. In the research I have done so far, the work that seems to be most effective is by photographers for whom becoming part of the communities they photograph is integral to their way of working, for example, the Exit group, Chris Killip, Sirkka Liisa-Konttinen and Jim Mortram. Ultimately, the majority of photographs I have looked at on the Bolton Worktown website from the project are quite dull and uninteresting, the distance between the photographer and photographed is evident which for a project that attempted to record the reality of working class life in the late 1930s is a major issue – the striving for objectivity and reality above all else makes the project a failure to my mind.


Barron, J. (2000) 90 and counting. British Journal of Photography, 19th April 2000. Available at: [accessed 30th October 2017]

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed) Abingdon: Routledge.

3 thoughts on “An ‘anthropology of ourselves’

  1. sarahjanefield512666 says:

    I thought it would be interesting to know WHY you don’t have a problem with photographing people without their knowledge. (As an academic exercise as opposed to any sort of accusation!) Also, Motram didn’t really become part of the community. He always was part of it. I think that’s an important distinction. I may well link to this in my next exercise. Ties in really well.

    Sent on the run!



    1. Michael Millmore says:

      That’s an interesting question, perhaps not having a problem with taking photographs of people without their permission rather than knowledge is a better explanation about how I feel about this. Is a photograph that is made without the subject being aware a more truthful portrait? (Evan’s Subway series or Di-Corcia’s Heads project for example) Increasingly though I am drawn to the idea that the best work in social documentary terms is that where the photographer takes time to get to know the people they photograph – this familiarity is what gives the work it’s strength.

      I am not sure I agree with you about Mortram. He is part of the community in terms of locality but the majority of people photographed in Small Town Inertia he came to know through the project. What is particularly interesting though is the level of trust in his work (I was going to say collaboration but I am not sure this is entirely correct.) Part of the point of his project is that the people he photographs are on the fringes of the community and what is inspiring is his anger at this and desire to do something about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. sarahjanefield512666 says:

        In all honesty, I don’t know enough about him personally and have probably projected a totally fictitious narrative …
        I ask about the permission thing because in some ways I feel the course I am on, along with general attitudes I’ve come across ‘out there’, are making me feel like saying, well if photography really is such a potentially violent and intrusive activity then it’s not worth doing at all….


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