This piece ran originally in Witness, which is published by the World Press Photo Foundation, and receives support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery and is sponsored worldwide by Canon.
A little over a year ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. For some this was a cause for jubilation, the successful end point of years of campaigning. For others it was a disaster, the triumph of a dark, xenophobic streak in British politics. Whichever it was, the vote was also an undeniable reminder of how fractured the United Kingdom has become, with analysis of the results revealing stark demographic divisions in who voted to leave, and who opted to remain. Shortly afterwards, I was waiting at London’s St. Pancras Station to board a Eurostar to France and pondering how the referendum result was likely to affect even this simple act of travel. As I waited, my eye was drawn to the rows of digital displays hanging throughout the departure lounge. Normally displaying advertisements and train departure times, instead these boards were illuminated with a series of photographic portraits.
This was part of Portrait of Britain, a collaboration between the British Journal of Photography and the digital billboard operator JCDeaux, who came together to display 100 portraits of contemporary Britons on digital signage across the country. The subjects of these portraits last year ranged from representing the well-known to the anonymous, with the likes of Don McCullin and Nadiya Hussain alongside ordinary Britons. Watching them change from one to another, I felt a sense of discomfort with the image of Britain that was emerging from the screens, one which I found difficult to explain. One year later, as a new iteration of Portrait of Britain launches and the Brexit negotiations continue in earnest, that feeling returns strongly enough for me to now attempt to dissect it.
For even a casual student of photography, it is hard to miss the reference Portrait of Britain makes in both title and form to one of the seminal works of documentary photography, August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, published in 1929 as the book Face of Our Time. A commercial studio photographer by trade, in 1911 Sander began this multi-decade project to document the people of inter-war Germany through portraits grouped into a series of thematic portfolios. In the process, he produced a work of social documentary which combined an aesthetic beauty with a remarkable scale. Sander recorded a deep cross-section of German society, from the obviously noteworthy figures of politicians and industrialists, to people at the bottom of the hierarchy, including wounded war veterans, circus performers, artisans, and peasants.
While sometimes seen today as almost naïvely humanist, Sander’s undertaking was not seen in such a light at the time, with the ascendant Nazi regime regarding this expansive image of Germany as dangerously in conflict with its own. The Nazi vision for Germany had little space for the existence, let alone the representation, of many of the ‘types’ that Sander felt it important to document. Consequently, his book was banned in 1934 and many of the negatives were destroyed. Sander spent the next decade undertaking less contentious work, while also compiling a final, secret portfolio titled The Persecuted. Perhaps the most poignant, but least well-known, section of Sander’s project, this addendum includes a photograph covertly taken of Sander’s own son Erich in his cell at Siegburg prison, where he had been interned and would later die for his involvement with left-wing political groups.
Sander also continued to take commercial portrait photographs in his studio, including many commissioned by members of the Nazi hierarchy. One of these taken in 1937 shows a Captain of the SS, standing in front of the Cathedral of Cologne, the city where Sander’s studio was located. Amongst Sander’s oeuvre it is again an image far less seldom displayed than his photographs of pastry chefs or amateur boxers, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging and confrontational of the images he produced. The captain is a perfect representation of Nazism, presenting himself unashamedly before the camera, safe in the knowledge that he and his kind are in the ascendancy. The brazen gaze of this man, and the knowledge of Sander’s own persecution, often make me wonder what inner resources it must have demanded of the photographer in order to take this picture.
Portrait of Britain is clearly making no claim to such comprehensive documentation as Sander, although given that it is drawing on the works of multiple photographers one might think that depicting a truly broad representation of Britain would be a more achievable goal than for one acting alone as Sander did. And yet in contrast to the breadth of Sander’s project, the people who have made it into Portrait of Britain constitute a noticeably narrow cross-section. They are predominantly young, beautiful, multi-cultural, aspirational. This is not in itself problematic, the people depicted are certainly part of the complex patchwork that makes up Britain today. But if these are the people who, to borrow a phrase from JCDeaux’s copywriters, are worthy of being ‘given noble status’ by their elevation to electronic advertising billboards, it seems we should also ask who are those implied to be unworthy of such ennoblement.
One of the privileges of teaching documentary photography is experiencing the world somewhat vicariously through one’s students, learning from them as they return with stories about people and places I have not myself encountered. My students frequently remind me how little I know of my own country, and through them I also become aware of the gaps we have as a nation in our collective, imagined image of ourselves. To speak only of a few of my fellow countrymen who my students have helped me become better acquainted with, I must ask where in Portrait of Britain are the disabled, quietly starving in freezing homes because of cuts to social security? Where are the refugees living on tenterhooks at the expectation of imminent relocation or deportation? Where are the fishermen rendered unemployed by globalisation, marking time by drinking themselves into oblivion? Where are the racists and xenophobes, gathering to unite in their shared hate?
The answer is that these people, like the English Defence League member depicted in Ed Thompson’s photograph above, are largely absent. Some of the selected photographs might touch indirectly on such issues (Claudia Leisinger’s photographs of a Billingsgate fish porter for example, speaks to me quietly of the onward march of globalisation and its impact on ordinary people), but presented on the Portrait of Britain website or on digital displays in shopping arcades and railway stations, they are shorn of such vital context. The reason ultimately being that while it might be clad in the guise of social documentary photography, Portrait of Britain is a commercial exercise for the organisers, and commerce fears nothing quite like a controversial opinion clearly stated. Yet whether we like to acknowledge it or not, these people are as much the face of Britain in 2017 as Stephen Hawking and Dizzee Rascal.
What Portrait of Britain really represents is a problem across the arts at large. In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, with the right seemingly on the ascendancy across the western hemisphere, there has been much discussion of the ways that we have insulated ourselves from reality in echo chambers which resound with reassuring noises, and blanket us from the fact that the alarmist rhetoric of the right finds many receptive and attentive ears. Rather than engage with enormously complex problems like globalisation and immigration, to which there are few simple answers, it has often proven easier for the left to ignore or dismiss those who are disquieted by them. In the process, the arts and even the supposedly mass, democratic medium of photography all too often become echo chambers of their own, perpetuating a comforting but ultimately misleading image of the world, which under the appropriated banner of documentary masquerades as an objective truth.
Photography has a potentially important role to play in helping us to rediscover the sometimes uncomfortable contours of our country, and perhaps also helping to heal some of the scars of the last few years. But such incomplete images of Britain cannot do that, and the tendency to deny and overlook sections of society has played no small part in the fractures and fissures that wrack our country and drive people to the empty promises of the political extremes. August Sander, in the introduction to a post-war reprint of Face of Our Time, wrote that ‘I have been down good paths and bad paths, and I have acknowledged my mistakes…so allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.’ Today it seems we could badly do with some of the same honesty.