Long exposure

More than 30 years separate Craig Easton’s sets of photos of the Williams family. He explains how documentary photography can hold up a mirror to British society

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In 1992 photographer Craig Easton was commissioned by French newspaper Libération to document the British “underclass”. He headed to Blackpool.

There he met the Williams family. Mick, Mandy and their six children, trapped in a vicious circle of joblessness and homelessness, were staying in a hostel. Easton spent a week with them documenting their lives.

“They caused quite a stir at the time,” says Easton, understating the point. The photographs, titled Thatcher’s Children and also published in the Independent, came to symbolise the deprivation that was a legacy of the Conservative government of the day.

“By that point, we’d had 13 years of Thatcherism and upward mobility right through the 1980s. But there was a great swathe of the community that was left behind. This was a piece of work about that poverty trap,” says Easton, adding that the photographs have followed him throughout his career and meant a lot to him, both then and now.

“I would speak to people and give talks and people would remember those photographs,” says Easton, who grew up in Liverpool and originally trained as a physicist at Salford University in the 1980s. He began to wonder what had become of the family, feeling he had only captured a snapshot of a much bigger story. For a long time, he says he tried to find them and, in 2016, he did.

“I would describe them as friends now really,” he says. “I’ve known them for quite a long time. There was a great hiatus in between 1992 and 2016, but when I finally got in contact with them I really just wanted to go and speak to them to fill in the gaps and find out what had happened.”

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Thatcher’s children had grown up and dispersed throughout the North. Now with families of their own, siblings Mark and Kristi were in Darwen and their current situation held echoes of the past.

“I didn’t really have any intention of making new work with them. We got chatting and it evolved slowly,” says Easton. But eventually, and following a commission by Blackpool arts organisation Left Coast, he did once again turn his lens back towards the Williams family.

“It took a long time but it’s pieced together over a period of years into what it is today… It allows the project to really talk about a longer-term issue around poverty, and saying that the situation the family is in now is built on their childhood and the problems their parents faced when they were younger. So Thatcher’s Children brings together this 30-year story of this extended family and sets it in the context of social policy.”

Images from Thatcher’s Children can currently be seen on the walls of the gallery at Blackpool School of Arts. They hang alongside photographs from another of Easton’s projects, Bank Top, which has equally affecting themes.

“Bank Top is made in Blackburn and some of the Thatcher’s Children work is now in Blackburn because part of the family moved there,” says Easton. “It was made in response to the BBC Panorama programmes [White Fright] describing Blackburn as the number one segregated town in Britain.”

This time Easton was commissioned by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery as part of its project Kick Down The Barriers in 2019. The resulting work earned him the prize for Photographer of the Year at the Sony World Photography Awards in 2021.

“As with all my work it’s really me going to question those things and asking, is this true? Can we go and have a look at this? What’s being shown on the BBC is using this dangerous and divisive language, so let’s go and tell stories from the point of view of Blackburners.”

Easton, who honed his craft as a press photographer, believes it’s the responsibility of journalists and other documentarians to shine a light on the “dark corners of society”, but he sees a distinction between his work – hanging on gallery walls and enclosed in cloth-bound coffee table books (the special edition of Thatcher’s Children sells for £250, with 10 per cent being donated to the Trussell Trust) – and the likes of the Panorama programme “going in for two days and making a film about segregation”.

How does he guard against making what is often referred to as ‘poverty porn’? Just as he says he rejected the term ‘the underclass’ in 1992, he believes the term is “dangerous”.

“I really rail against these phrases that come into vogue. I don’t know when ‘poverty porn’ came in, but it seems to me that phrases like that, like ‘culture wars’, are used to shut down conversation.

“Is it poverty porn? Well, hang on – I think it’s really important that we talk about these things. If bandying these phrases about is shutting down debate, or it’s making photographers or artists, or journalists or filmmakers, or anyone, scared of addressing really important issues in society, then I think we need to kick back against that.

“I think we need to ask the question, where’s the phrase come from? Whose idea is it that we should not point a finger at society and say, there is an issue here with poverty?

“Having said that, the answer to how to ensure it is not exploitative is, I don’t know. Maybe it is a little exploitative. I hope not, but really it’s a function of me spending a long time with these families and having questions and asking, can I talk to you about it? Can we have an open conversation?”

Easton says the voices of his subjects are present in his work – that it is honest and truthful and has integrity. In highlighting the plight of impoverished families, he says, he aims to hold people in power to account. Does photography have the power to effect real change?

“I don’t know whether it has that power but I think it’s part of the conversation and I think it can stimulate debate,” he says. “My local MP came to an exhibition and I’ve held debates between 16 year olds and parliamentarians where they can actually get them up on the stage and ask them questions.

“It’s a terrible cliché to say that photography is a first draft of history but, in a sense, that is what we’re doing. I feel like I’m a historian as much as a photographer and what I’m recording is work that can be looked at now and in years to come and say, this is the kind of society we live in, let’s talk about it.

“It’s called documentary photography because we are documenting and recording society and I think the more we do that the more people understand.

“I don’t know how powerful it is but it feels like it’s important to me. I think a visual record of our society and our culture is critically important.”

Is Anybody Listening? is at Blackpool School of Arts until 31 May; Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery June-July; New Adelphi Exhibition Gallery, Salford, Sept-Dec; and Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, Jan-March 2024. The exhibition is presented by the University of Salford and supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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