Et In Arcadia Ego, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)

Following on from my earlier post, several of Jason Orton’s images remind me of articles I have read in the last few years regarding the Essex coastline.

Owen Hatherley describes the journey down the Thames estuary as

following the path described by Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , the riverside journey taken by the Romans to the blasted, uncivilised, inhospitable edges of the known world. It can still feel like that.

It has been the topic for a recent Jonathon Meades program The Joy of Essex (2013).

Shaped by its closeness to London, Meades points out that this is where 19th-century do-gooders attempted to reform London’s outcasts with manual labour and fresh air, from brewing magnate Frederick Charrington’s Temperance Colony on Osea Island to the Christian socialist programmes run by Salvation Army founder William Booth.

Meades also discovers a land which abounds in all strains of architecture, from the modernist village created by paternalistic shoe giant Thomas Bata to Oliver Hill’s masterplan to re-imagine Frinton-on-Sea and the bizarre but prescient work of Arthur Mackmurdo, whose exceptionally odd buildings were conceived in the full blown language of the 1930s some fifty years earlier.

In a visually impressive and typically idiosyncratic programme, Meades provides a historical and architectural tour of a county that challenges everything you thought you knew and offers so much you didn’t.
Taken from BBC4’s synopsis to The Joy of Essex (2013)

The Thames estuary has always been an area of non-conformity, with the many temperance farms of Victorian reformists and the post war plotlands movement.

The result of a specific set of circumstances, Plotlands were a peculiarly English phenomena, tied in large part to the desire to own a piece of land, no matter how small. The agricultural decline of the 1870s, brought on in part by increased imports from British colonies, resulted in farms becoming bankrupt and their land being sold off cheaply in small plots by developers. Farmers in marginal areas that had vulnerable sea-side locations or where the soil was not very fertile, such as the clay soils of Essex, were worst hit. With an increase in holidaying, buying a small plot of land to build a holiday home or set up a small holding became a popular and cheap option for Londoners wanting to escape the cramped conditions of the city.

These self-built, self-reliant settlements were often without basic services such as water and sanitation, with the owners having to petition councils, and to sometimes contribute financially towards their provision, which lead to a strong sense of community. Due to the relaxed planning regulations, the Plotlands took on a character of their own, some converted boats and railway carriages, whilst others built summerhouses; anything from discarded bits of mahogany joinery to sections of garden trellis were used. Over time people from these settlements were relocated to new towns or the areas upgraded so that they have slowly become part of the encroaching suburbia.

The strange hinterland of Essex’s haphazard and unplanned coastal communities has also been the subject for a series of national newspaper articles after Jaywick was named the most deprived in England. The Guardian’s article is a reasonably even handed piece of light ethnography, while the Daily Mail decided to run a series of grey overcast photographs of a rubbish strewn Jaywick (just in case you didn’t know what deprivation looked like).

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One of my concerns, working on a body of research about interstitial sites and communities is that it will be read as a project on deprivation. We have all become very literate in looking at deadpan photos of the landscape and linking them to negative connotations. It is a topic that the British Journal of Photography explored in it’s musing and opinion section Intelligence.

I have included the article in full below, all text and image are copyright of Philip Wolmuth:

The Guardian newspaper recently illustrated a story on the ‘north-south divide’ with a picture of a child running down a Manchester back alley in the rain. The caption read “A child playing in Manchester. A charity says 1.6 million UK children live in poverty”. The alley does look typically northern, but nothing in the picture suggests deprivation, other than an echo, for photo buffs with a long memory, of a Bert Hardy photo of the Gorbals taken in 1948.

There is nothing wrong with the Guardian photo itself, just with how it has been used. The iconography of poverty too often makes use of stereotypes, and in this case the caption relies on ‘up north and wet’ to convey the intended meaning.

What does poverty look like when the sun is shining? According to the latest Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Jaywick Sands (below), close to the Essex resort of Clacton-on-Sea, is the most deprived ward in the UK. But despite the boarded-up shops and broken pavements, under a blue August sky, it doesn’t really look the part.

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With some exceptions, it is difficult for a single image to capture either the experience, or the causes, of poverty in a developed western economy. We don’t have tin-roofed shanty towns (although Brooklands Estate in Jaywick, originally built as a low-cost beach-side holiday resort, comes close). Even the poorest child has shoes. The statistics tell us that a low income tends to result in obesity rather than emaciation.

Decaying infrastructure, as in Jaywick, signifies something is wrong, but not how it impacts on people’s lives, or how it got that way. No-one is suggesting that those living north of Watford Gap are particularly feckless. The poverty of the ‘north-south divide’ is clearly systemic, its causes macro-economic and political, usually complex, and often longstanding. Many parts of northern England have never recovered from the rapid de-industrialisation of the 1980s. The tens of thousands of jobs lost in coal and steel have not been replaced. How do you show something that isn’t there?

The exceptions – instances where a single photograph does unambiguously capture something of the feel of poverty – are also problematic. Obvious examples are the images of rough sleepers used in fund-raising publicity by charities for the homeless. Family breakdown, mental illness and drug misuse are the most common reasons people end up on the street. But the focus on individual stories, however tragic, which such images encourage, diverts attention away from the failures, also systemic, that underlie them: inadequate care homes, mental health facilities and housing provision.

The current economic crisis is often compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the UK, that era is still remembered through the faded black and white images of the Jarrow Crusade, flat-capped dole queues, and downcast men standing idle on street corners. Poverty doesn’t look like that any more. Colour makes a big difference. The girl in the Guardian photograph is wearing a bright red coat. It looks new. In black and white it would have shown up as a miserable dark blob.

More importantly, the communities that grew up around the now closed pits, steelworks and other heavy industrial sites have largely fragmented. The ethos of solidarity that they embodied, and that underpinned the birth of the Welfare State, has been displaced by the individualism of the neo-liberal years. Although the causes of poverty and unemployment remain systemic, they are no longer experienced collectively. How can you convey the bigger picture with photographs of individuals? It can be done, but it needs more than one picture, the right words, and some history.

In the USA, the Depression years were famously documented in depth by the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration. The body of work they produced, of derelict farms, dust-blown fields, bankrupt share-cropper families, soup kitchens and the rest, managed to show that bigger picture, in a way that gave a context to photographs of individuals. It is impossible to look at Dorothea Lange’s well-known ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph, for instance, without having in the back of one’s mind images, by Walker Evans and others, of the destitution she was fleeing.

All that is a long way from sun-blessed Essex. Not only is the experience of poverty in 21st century Britain more fragmented, it is also mitigated by the existence of the Welfare State, whatever its inadequacies. In Jaywick a high proportion of residents are dependent on state benefits or pensions, but they are not typical. Most people whose income falls below the poverty threshold in the UK are in work. The National Minimum Wage is currently £6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and over; the minimum for apprentices is £2.60; the National Living Wage (outside London) is £7.60. None of these rates are affected by the weather. People ‘up north’ aren’t poor because it rains a lot. And down south, even if it looks less gritty, poverty doesn’t go away when the sun shines. It’s a complicated story, and newspapers need to find better ways of telling it.
This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the British Journal of Photography.

I really don’t think newspapers are capable of this level of photo journalism, it is too complicated to be dealt with in a few double page spreads. Issues of this kind can only be dealt with by long form journalism on the gallery wall or on the pages of a photographic book. The real problem will always be finding a way to output this kind of work to the widest audience possible. Arts council cuts mean that galleries are less likely to run work that is a harder sell.

The documentary film, Jaywick Escapes (2012), better dealt with the story of Jaywick Sands, it is British producer / director Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope’s third documentary film, following Bata-ville: we are not afraid of the future (2005) and Living with the Tudors (2008). The film follows the lives of three Jaywick newcomers, drifters whose reasons to escape here are revealed across a year. At its heart is Nick, a reformed wide boy. Recently widowed, he fulfils a long-held dream of moving to Jaywick, throwing himself into a new life. But before long, and as they have for the town itself, things seem to go very wrong.

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One thought on “Et In Arcadia Ego, Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)”

  1. Again, through reading this blog, I am thinking about the issues surrounding depicting or recording an experience through a medium that tends to be focussed on using only one sense in it’s depiction. Philip Wolmuth writes within his article that “instances where a photograph does unambiguously capture something of the feel of poverty are also problematic.” Here we have several issues; can we truly depict what poverty “feels like” if our experience is based out-side of this state of being? Perhaps we can go as far as empathising or, dare I say, feeling sorry for people in this situation. We can make decisions based on our own experience, at best informed by our own experience and the learned responses through media and public, mainly middle-class, bias.
    Can any single art-form come close to this state of being. Grayson Perry produced his tapestries reflecting the class based society in which we live through at least experiencing for himself the people and something of their lives for a short period of time. I am not sure though what the real motive here may have been; was it in fact an attempt to say that art has a relevance to all areas of our society, or as a means of GP saying that he is “everyman’s artist”?
    Surely, within the overview of “edgelands” the whole aspect of transience has to be taken into account. We can only ever have snap-shots of lives and circumstances because by their very nature they don’t fit into the routine and humdrum of Mr and Mrs Average’s daily lives in any consciously meaningful way. They are visited through necessity and then left. They may fill the visitor with a rather unsavoury or uncomfortable reaction- but this is inevitably internalised and then dismissed as part of other-people’s way of life. When we are reminded of it through visual media such as photography, we have a similar reaction; “that’s unpleasant, but somebody else’s life”. The documenting of this area of our world doesn’t (as I have mentioned in previous comments) fit in with our notion of an English idyll. Is it worth doing? Yes of course. We need to be educated into the way in which our whole environment works and is shaped by our actions. The comfortable existence of middle England is supported by areas that we deme unsavoury and to be reminded of them is to help us realise that our position in society is rather comfortable, but definitely not assured.

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