Today, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will release their latest Destitution in the UK report with a conference in Central London. In April 2016 the foundation released a report that showed 1.25 million people in the UK lived in destitution at that time. Over half of the UK’s major newspapers failed to report this, just as they continually fail to report ‘news’ affecting the one third of the country that lives in poverty. This huge mass is unrepresented in the media, and when lives are reported on or examined it is often in a hostile fashion. Les Monaghan began the project that became Relative Poverty the day after reading the 2016 report, its coverage in The Guardian, and the trolling that it received in the Comment is Free section. For those who dismiss empirical research Relative Poverty bears witness to lives lived in poverty in 2016-17. Working with families in destitution in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, his attempt to redress the imbalance of power is aimed at public display and tours public libraries and churches, avoiding the reframing of the mainstream media, until now. It has been shown across Doncaster Libraries, at Sheffield Central Library, at Doncaster Minster, at theNational Association of Welfare Rights Advisers’ conference, at the Doncaster Research festival, at The Art House Derby, in schools, photography talks and universities and will shown at the Welfare Conditionality conference at the University of York in June 2018, Barnsley Libraries in the Summer of 2018, and Sheffield Cathedral in October 2018.
The story of the UK’s destitute does not fit Philip Jones Griffiths’ media enforced ‘standard view’ of the world. I believe that the media invisibility enables the government to continue its neglect. I chose to photograph those who are not street homeless (who are at least visible) and sought families behind closed doors. These are people who are all around us (1.25 million is more than the population of Birmingham), but you won’t see them on the bus (they walk), they do the unseen jobs, or are housebound. I wanted to use photography to lift the cloak of systemic and wilful invisibility. As I worked with the families I learnt that they were all in destitution as a result of government policy. Alongside the photographs I highlight which of these policies affects each family. Ariella Azoulay believes it is our obligation to act when we see photographs of others in pain. And these families are enduring what John Berger once called the pain of the world – that of living with no money. Once you have seen the photographs you can act by seeking to remove the policies this government utilises in its war on the poor.
What is Relative Poverty?
The title came when David Cameron tried to deflect Jeremy Corbyn’s question on the rise in numbers of children in poverty by quoting different statistics about children in ‘relative poverty’ in March 2016. It highlighted for me how numbers (facts) can be misused, how most politicians never give straight answers, how something so finite, destructive and abhorrent as living in poverty becomes theatre and how the subsequent discussion moves away from real, live people to the words or numbers used. Its also a reminder of our privilege, our ‘relative’ relationship to those families in the photographs, some of us have direct, lived experience of similar suffering, whilst others are reliant on a medium to convey understanding.
The social conditions that the photographs show have to be contextualised. As I listened to each of the participants it became apparent that they were destitute directly as a result of one or more government policies. So when you look at Relative Poverty and think, ‘that’s awful… but what can I do?’, the answer is, change that policy, it was made by lawmakers who have to be re-elected every five years. If the lawmakers who made those policies that are crushing those most in need are removed, and new lawmakers installed that revoke those policies, lives will be improved. Use your vote.
We hear the voice of business, of capital, of our masters all the time, it obliterates the voices of others, drowns the voices of friends and colleagues, obscures even the voices of our families. The ‘news’ isn’t the news, ask yourself why suddenly you’re hearing about Venezuela, Czech spies and Oxfam scandals… what about Bolivia, the sell off of the NHS and poverty in the UK? Relative Poverty is my tiny challenge to the mainstream media, the news in April 2016 was that it took a charityto tell us 1.25 million of our neighbours can’t heat their homes and eat properly. Our government had failed to keep us informed, and over half our print-based news outlets (The Daily Star, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun and The Times) simply didn’t report it. Because that poverty hasn’t been dealt with, it was also the news of May 2016, June 2016, July 2016…
The reception of the April 2016 JRF report led me to think that if I was to make a dedicated project about an issue then dissemination was vital. Much of the mainstream media ignored that vital report, so why court them? Social media is a job in itself. I started by asking who I’m trying to reach. Realistically I’m targeting those that vote Conservative who whether by accident or design are uninformed about the impact of austerity policies. Demographically I’m thinking about people like my parents, they read the Daily Express, aren’t on social media, watch the BBC news, listen to BBC radio. As Julian Baggini found out in Welcome to Everytown, your country can seem utterly alien if you change how you inform yourself. My parents, and others, have no idea about 90% of the UK. My singularly informed voters tend to be older, take voting seriously, aren’t in poverty, may have been born working class but these days feel they have solidarity with causes like Brexit rather than the class struggle. They do things as they’ve always done, they probably switched from Labour in 1979, they may still get their books from libraries, they’re dimly aware of food banks, perhaps through their church, but haven’t seen I, Daniel Blake. It is a research project, its testing whether you can reach an audience that wouldn’t go to galleries, and testing whether by showing audiences something that is contrary to the prevailing propaganda whether minds can be changed. It is linked with other research projects, such as the Welfare Conditionality project, and I’ve shared work with LSE public policy researchers among others. Dan Jarvis, Ed Miliband and others are interested in the work. But as we know, research projects can just be ignored, as can opposition MPs. The lives of those represented in Relative Poverty will not be improved unless this government is removed, only voters can do that.