NICK HEDGES | INTERVIEW
Ben Woolhead speaks to a British documentary photographer whose 1960s and 70s work with housing charity Shelter shone a vital light on a national crisis, and which is collected in a newly published book, Home.
Home: a small but evocative word. For some, home is a cocoon of comforting familiarity and sanctuary, somewhere to which you can return or retreat to seek refuge from the outside world, a safe space in the midst of a global pandemic. But for others less fortunate, it can be a depressing or dangerous place, a cramped and dilapidated prison cell, a site not of domestic bliss but of domestic abuse and other incalculable harms.
Home, a new photobook by Nick Hedges, is a raw, sobering collection of images taken between 1968 and 1972 that shone a spotlight on the appalling living conditions endured by many people in the UK. Founded in 1966, Shelter set out to publicise the scale of a postwar housing crisis that had left thousands stuck in uninhabitable properties and to persuade the powers that be of the urgent need to do something about it. The charity was looking for pictures to illustrate their reports, campaigns and education materials; Hedges, a student with an emerging interest in the potential of documentary photography as a form of political activism, was looking for a job.
“It was fortuitous,” he tells me. “I had just signed on unemployed and was sitting in the offices of the Birmingham Housing Trust. I was pasting large 6ft-by-4ft photographs I had taken for them onto panels for an exhibition. Someone popped their head around the door, looked at the images and said ‘nice photographs’.
“About two weeks later, I had a phone call from Shelter asking me whether I’d like to join them to document bad housing across the country. Accident and chance play such a large part in our lives – we often don’t admit to it.”
In Home’s introduction, Hedges writes: “I have always been more interested in photographing ordinary life, not exceptional circumstances.” As the book makes clear, slum housing conditions were sadly very much ordinary life, abundantly evident in major cities across Britain. “Generally, I would knock on doors in areas that we knew were full of inadequate housing,” Hedges remembers. “Sometimes introductions were made by social workers or housing association workers. The encounters weren’t awkward. It was important to remain humble and not ‘official’. You would explain what Shelter was and why you were doing this research. For the most part, people were helpful, but you would never press or overstate the desire you had to do an interview or take photographs.”
As a photographer, establishing a relationship of trust with your subjects is critical – especially in such sensitive circumstances. “You make yourself small, unimportant, insignificant. Their story is the most important and significant thing and you respect that as being central.”
Home presents documentary evidence of peeling wallpaper, crumbling plasterwork, filthy kitchens, claustrophobic living rooms, mouldy mattresses in bug-infested bedrooms, cracked and patched-up windowpanes, gaping holes in walls and ceilings. But really it’s about the people for whom these horrendous conditions were an everyday reality. Naming Dorothea Lange’s photograph Migrant Mother as one of the 100 most influential images of all time, Time claimed that it “did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression”. Likewise, Hedges’ unfiltered pictures “gave a face to a suffering nation”.
Housing scholars talk about the concept of “ontological security”, whereby (in the words of Cardiff University academic Rhiannon Craft) “bringing one’s immediate surroundings under control facilitates autonomy and identity construction, which can bring about a greater sense of wellbeing”. On the flipside, then, “poor quality housing can also serve as a reoccurring, brutal reminder of the lack of control one has over one’s dwelling” – and, by extension, over one’s own life.
The old-beyond-their-years adults in Hedges’ portraits stare into space, wearied and despondent at the awfulness of a situation from which there seems to be no means of escape. Few can face meeting the camera’s gaze – perhaps out of a sense of shame at their predicament. Hedges recalls that fathers in particular “often demonstrated an uneasy guilt”, and “were more reluctant to be photographed, as if the image itself would become a signature of failure”. The narrative of individual culpability rather than governmental negligence had been absorbed even by the victims of the housing crisis.
What makes Home particularly poignant, however, is the children – also unsmiling but, unlike their parents, often looking into the lens and therefore directly at the viewer with accusatory eyes. Hedges’ images trash the rose-tinted myth of an idyllic post-war jumpers-for-goalposts-and-home-for-tea childhood. We’re confronted with pictures of Glaswegian kids playing in rubbish, a young girl left to fend for herself in a Manchester alleyway, a grubby-faced toddler clambering over demolition rubble in Birmingham with bottle teat clamped between teeth.
As Hedges graphically illustrates, the consequences weren’t grazed knees but impetigo and internal organs punctured by rusty nails. These were children born into despair and hopelessness, seemingly condemned to a life of grinding poverty. “I look at the two images of the sisters in their Glasgow home,” Hedges says, “and recognise that they are at the point of launching themselves into an adult world and I speculate sadly and wonder desperately what their future became.”
Hedges’ photographs may have come too late to help these kids, but they were integral to Shelter’s mission to improve the lot of later generations and demonstrate that the deficiencies were structural rather than personal. Which makes it all the more remarkable that they haven’t been collected together in a form that truly does them justice – until now. Home found the perfect publisher in Bluecoat, specialists in social documentary photography; the Kickstarter target to make it happen was comfortably surpassed, and the result is a volume befitting the images’ sociohistorical significance.
“I was fortunate enough to edit the material for the book myself,” Hedges says. This meant that “it was possible to construct contexts for [the pictures] that the passage of time has revealed as significant. History can reveal the scheme of things in a way that the present cannot.” The images are sequenced so as to take you from the streets into the houses, and then loosely grouped by the type of room, or the identity and age of the subjects within it.
Among the photographs are reproductions of official housing department responses to applications for moves: carefully, dispassionately worded replies from beleaguered functionaries that offer little hope of help to the applicants. Hedges insists that their inclusion is not to imply that “local authorities were unfeeling or failed to understand”; on the contrary, like the residents, they too “were trapped by the failure of central government to provide enough funds to deal with a critical shortage of social housing”.
As Home shows, by the mid-1970s the slums were being swept away, leaving desolate, rubble-strewn inner-city deserts with only the odd street sign still standing. “New horizons were promised,” the text reads, “and new Jerusalems were created in our green and pleasant land.” This is mordant sarcasm: those “new Jerusalems” turned out to be high-rise concrete tower blocks, hastily and shoddily constructed, and the flats within them were cramped and had no outdoor space. The clearances had bulldozed more than just bricks and mortar; they had destroyed communities too.
And it didn’t end there, Hedges adds. “Thatcher’s government in the 1980s sold off the good social housing that the local authorities had provided in the 1930s and 1950s, and prohibited them from reinvesting the money raised in housing stock. It was the great betrayal.”
After leaving Shelter, Hedges worked on various ventures: the exhibition Problem In The City (with Ron McCormack and Larry Herman), a critique of town planning; a three-year project about people’s working lives that resulted in both an exhibition and a book; a series of photos focusing on the fishing industry on Tyneside. But it’s for the images that make up Home that he is probably best known. Ask him about their legacy and he remains modest, talking about having been granted “the great good fortune to make an archive of life in this country”. But the influence of his work lives on – in the images of a nation ravaged and broken by austerity, taken by the likes of Jim Mortram, Kirsty Mackay and the contributors to Paul Sng’s book project Invisible Britain.
The title of that book is telling. In his recent Offline essay “Sites Of Struggle And Photography”, Paul Cabuts refers to the 2019 report of the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, in which Tory austerity measures were found to have had “tragic consequences”, and quotes the dismissive response of Chancellor at the time, Phillip Hammond: “Look around you; that is not what we see in this country”. Cabuts’ point is clear: “Visibility is of course key … It seems we live in a time where making things less visible solves the problem – of course it doesn’t, it makes it worse.” Photographers like himself, he argues, have a moral responsibility to do the opposite – to make visible “the harm being done around us”.
It’s an imperative to which Hedges would also subscribe. The explicit purpose of the pictures collected in Home was to draw attention to a crisis that was apparently invisible to those in power. Like Cabuts, he sees the camera as a potent means of telling the truth, and his introduction also quotes a Tory politician, Harold Macmillan, who in 1957 famously declared: “Our people have never had it so good.” Home gives the lie to that claim. There’s a danger that the book will be viewed from a distance as merely a historical document of a bygone age – but, as Hedges emphasises, the exact same problems persist today, which makes this a shining example for any contemporary photographers prepared to heed Cabuts’ call.
“Part of my duty as a photographer is to honour the trust placed in me by people with no voice and to represent them as clearly and straightforwardly as possible,” writes Hedges. And what of those people? “When Shelter celebrated their 50th anniversary,” he tells me, “they were able to contact several of the families in the photographs and I’ve been able to reconnect with some of the children (now middle aged). It is too early to say if the book will establish any connections.” Perhaps – but the significance of its contents is indisputable.
Home is available from Bluecoat Press, price: £28. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos NICK HEDGES