If you visit The Refuge in Manchester, you’ll find a rarity of an exhibition: images by renowned photographer Tish Murtha, as well as a selection of my work from East Manchester.
This is the latest exhibition from the British Culture Archive, but there’s more than photographs on show. It’s a commentary which began 40 years ago when Murtha took photos in Elswick, Newcastle. It was embarked on again when I took photographs in East Manchester. The story came full circle when Paul Wright set out to find photos of working-class life from the past 40 years, and struggled to discover what he thought was well-documented and accessible.
“It’s about our lives and culture,” he says. “But you don’t get to see it, it’s not out there anywhere.” Wright started the archive and began tracking down photography he knew must exist but didn’t have any outlet or visibility. Unbeknown to him, he was on the cusp of an explosion in UK documentary photography alongside various others including Craig Atkinson from Café Royal Books, who was thinking along similar lines.
Five years on and the British Culture Archive houses a body of work from over 40 photographers who’ve captured key moments in politics and culture such as the Poll Tax riots, Rock Against Racism, estate life, music, fashion, clubbing, and football. The photographs have an unapologetic political and cultural charge. And many of the photographers have the same story to tell – that we made the photographs then found there was no interest in showing and publishing them, so we put them away and forgot about them.
For the latest exhibition, Wright wanted to feature female documentary photographers. He put together work that had received little or no recognition at the time it had been photographed. It’s 40 years since Murtha made her documentary about Elswick kids, but only recently has she emerged as one of UK’s pre-eminent documentary photographers. Sadly, she died before she was widely acknowledged.
“I saw connections between Tish Murtha and Anne Worthington’s work,’ says Wright. “So I wanted to put them together. They worked in similar areas, 20 years apart. They never knew each other’s work, but they have similar things to say, and say it in different ways. They show life at close quarters in some of the most deprived parts of the country.”
What I see in Murtha’s photographs is childhood that’s wild and inventive, the energy spills out of the kids. Then you see them in their late teens and early adulthood and the energy has gone. You don’t see hope because they’ve numbed it out, it had no place where they lived. The potential, joy and inventiveness we see in the photographs of the kids had been turned off like a switch because it wasn’t needed on the youth training schemes and low-skilled jobs that the teenagers were funnelled into. This is what Tish Murtha wrote about in the essay that accompanies the photographs for her Youth Unemployment series. She was angry about the waste of that potential. It propelled her to take photographs.
And I was angry when I took photographs in East Manchester some 20 years ago, and found yet another area where people had been abandoned because the jobs had left their locality. It showed up the lottery of opportunity there is in this country. I felt angry, but I also felt admiration for the way people worked to keep their community together when so much had fallen away.
People tell me that the photographs move them. They see resilience, humour and a sense of belonging. I think they’re right. Sometimes, people message to say how much it means seeing someone from Manchester on the wall of an exhibition. There hasn’t been much documentary photography in evidence since Shirley Baker was working in Salford and Manchester, and I hope these photographs start to fill that gap in time.
So, we might feel anger and turn it into something like photography. And when people come and see what we’ve made, they are helping to transform that anger into something else, something like love and pride. And that’s a beautiful thing, because we are making it happen between us. It means they’re not just photographs on a wall. It’s people recognising themselves, or learning about a life that’s far away from theirs, learning something, sharing something, building bridges, not making divisions.
By Anne Worthington
Main image: © Anne Worthington. All rights reserved.
Anne Worthington will be giving a talk at The Refuge in Manchester about photography and the photographs she took in East Manchester. Date TBC. More info at @britishculturearchive and @anneworthington1
A Woman’s Work, an exhibition of photographs by Tish Murtha & Anne Worthington, produced by the British Culture Archive, is at The Refuge, Kimpton Clocktower Hotel, Oxford Road, Manchester until June 30, 2022. It is open every day from 12pm -11pm and is free to all.