Science museum in London invite us to discover the poor housing conditions and the povetry-stricken families living in cities across United Kingdom through a rather unique photographic exhibition.

“Make life worth living” could be seen as a remarkable documentary study of English communities before the working class culture be dominated by the forces of modernism in the 70s. Here was the hidden 60s, the very opposite idea of the swinging 60s. Here the abject widespread povetry made people living in terrible conditions most of them in the ruins of the slum clearence programme of the 1930s.

Co-curated by the independent curator Hedy van Erp and the National Media Museum’s curator of photographs Greg Hobson, the exhibition offers to the audience the opportunity to see the collection for the first time, following a 40 year restriction in order to protect the anonymity of the people. It’s a representative selection from 1000 black and white photographs attempting to show the photographer’s breadth approach to the living experience of these people rather than just focusing on the miserable slum housing.

The one hundred vintage photographs are displayed in an enormous space which comes in contrast to the small prints requiring from the viewer to step closer and explore each one of them in detail.

The first of the series of photographs began when Nick Hedges was in his final year at Birmingham College of Art. The local housing trust asked the class to photograph the living conditions of people in the inner city. His aim was to address social affairs and his 35mm Leica M2 camera became his weapon in the battle against social injustice. Soon he became Shelter’s (housing charity) photographer, commissioned to photograph people living in poor housing conditions. Hedges spent four years travelling across UK from Bradford to London and Glasgow knocking doors, approaching people who were heartened that someone was actually taking an interest in their abject way of life.

Those early years of his career became the significant starting point for his documentary practice as he admits that:

  “Those first years of my professional life were hugely important. They shaped my understanding of documentary photography-how images can serve a purpose. In the years which followed, I became commited to photographing ordinary life and the everyday person. I never chased after anything more exotic”.[1]

At the time which documentary photography was mainly focused upon international events and war conflicts, Shelter and Hedges exposed the human misery faced by more than three million people. The charity’s campaign made visible what many people in England couldn’t even imagine for the vast number of their fellow citizens. Of course the places of the scenes have long since been regenerated but can we claim that these conditions don’t exist in our communities now?

 The truth is that governments throughout the years have failed to provide and secure housing, making people live on the edge. There has been a terrible lack of investment in housing, with little legal and economic support and architects and planners who can’t give solutions to this critical social problem.

People are still living with the same insecurities with housing stability continuously decreasing in an unpromising future. Hedges says:

‘Although these photographs have become historical documents, they serve to remind us that secure and adequate housing is the basis of a civilized urban society. The failure of successive governments to provide for it is a sad mark of society’s inaction. The photographs should allow us to celebrate progress, yet all they can do is haunt us with a sense of failure.

 


[1] Nick Hedges cited in Stewart, S. ‘Make life worth living: Nick Hedges’ photos from the Shelter archive’ [Online] http://stories.shelter.org.uk/make-life-worth-living/ [14th November 2014]


His hard hitting photographs make the viewer re-consider and re-evaluate the concept of “Home”. Other genres of arts such as poetry give an ideal and romantic approach of safety to the theme far away from the fragility of homeless reality. This multidimensional concept can be seen from many perspectives most associated with familiar faces, family or a place. But our fragile reality requires “Home” to be an environment to secure the value of human worth and make “Life Worth Living”.

Hedges was highly influenced by Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s socio-political agenda of 1941 book “Let us now praise the famous men” which tried to raise conciousness about poor living in South America.

The discipline and attitude towards responsibility that James Agee and Walker Evans evolved in their work pre-war had always remained constant in my mind…

His commitment and empathy for his subjects are clear through his descriptive textual information, personal notes, people’s words and stories which are well displayed alongside with the photographs in the exhibition. There is a strong feeling of bearing witness to real life situations and time.

  On the other hand some might argue that most of his images look posed, missing the so called “photographic reality”. In this respect it is worth mentioning the aspect of collaboration between the photographer and the subject for capturing a significant moment, moreover a single photograph can’t be limited to the moment that shutter was snapped.

 Without doubt, posed or not, his subjects reflect the depths of hopelessness and the effects of bad housing on people, no matter the age or the genre. The desperation, the anxiety, the fear are emotions hard to be hidden especially in children’s eyes who are facing a tough kind of childhood experience.

The displayed body of work features street-scapes, scenes of families and portraits rich in context. It’s a remarkable collection of photographs, an evidence of pure commitment and a great example of what documentary photography ought to be.

 In conclusion, I strongly believe this isn’t a chapter of our past. Each photograph is a human story which statics can’t tell, it’s a glimpse to human cost of bad housing, so timeless that after nearly 45 years comes to remind us that history repeats itself. The material circumstances may have changed alongside with living conditions, although the exhibition is more poignant than ever.