Portraying three generations of poverty in England

Portraying three generations of poverty in England
In 1992, photographer Craig Easton was dispatched to Blackpool to meet the ordinary people demonised by Conservative Party policies and rhetoric. There he got to know the Williams family, whose lives he would document over the next 14 years.

In the autumn of 1992, Peter Lilley, the then Secretary of State for Social Security – a now defunct governmental role responsible for the UK’s welfare system, often the last line of defence against hunger and homelessness – gave a speech. It was at the annual Conservative Party conference, where in front of a neatly-seated crowd of gently applauding, beige suit-wearing, mostly over-50 year-olds, he lambasted “spongers”, “scroungers”, and “bogus asylum seekers”.

Across the Channel, the demonising language piqued the ears of editors at the French newspaper Libération. Wanting to find out exactly who were these people he was shaming, they decided to send journalist Fabrice Rousselot and a young photographer named Craig Easton to the North of England.

“There was a word going round at the time that politicians and the media were using a lot, which was the ‘underclass’,” Easton says. “It was basically people who had fallen foul of Conservative Party policies in the 1980s and found themselves out of work and homeless.”

The assignment brought Rousselot and Easton to Blackpool’s red-light district, where they met the Williams family, a household of eight – two parents and six children – who had fallen upon hard times. They are the subjects of Easton’s new photobook Thatcher’s Children, which presents pictures taken for the original 1992 feature (also reprinted in the Independent) alongside more recent colour photographs taken after Easton reconnected with family members in 2016.

Having owned a courier business, Mandy and Mick Williams lived relatively comfortably in the 1980s. But the country’s economic downturn, coupled with Margaret Thatcher overseeing the decimation of industry, sparked a series of events that saw them fall into poverty. The black-and-white photographs from the shoot attracted attention in the UK and abroad, showing the cramped conditions that the family lived in – a television sitting on top of a small fridge or dinner being served on a low, shin-height table.

“It was a difficult time,” he says. “In the 1980s there was massive economic and industrial change in Britain where we moved away from being an industrial society to being a service economy and financial society.”

Easton would come back in touch with the family nearly a quarter of a century later, when Emma Williams reached out on Facebook after hearing about his attempts to reconnect. “I understand you have some pictures of my family,” she wrote. “I’d like to see them. Can I?”

“At first I just wanted to show them the pictures,” he recalls. “But they’d never seen pictures of themselves as children. It was extraordinary – they didn’t recognise themselves. In the ‘90s in order to have photographs you had to have a camera, film, and to pay for process and to get it printed.”

From there he would photograph several of the other Williams children, and now Mandy and Mick’s grandchildren. Yet despite all the time that had passed, the various siblings found themselves in similar situations to their parents. “They’ve all worked and had partners, grown up and had families bit found it incredibly difficult to break out of this cycle,” Easton says.

Interspersed with quotes from Conservative and Labour politicians, the book represents the failure by successive politicians to address inequality, poverty, and social mobility in the country. “They’re forever talking about ‘levelling up’, ‘the northern powerhouse’ and these weasel words that are trotted out to placate people,” he says. “I’m not doing The North down because I love it. Liverpool’s thriving, Manchester’s thriving but there are a lot of people left behind.”

While showing the poor living conditions that many people on the poverty line in the North live in, the series also projects a warmth and humanity that extends beyond their economic situations – it is not a project of ‘poverty porn’. “These are families that are doing their best and enjoying life as best as they can,” Easton says. “Playing in the backyard and building dens, splashing around in the river, photographing Katrina’s wedding. I hang out with these people, they are my friends.”

“It’s funny because [people who see the pictures] see them as photographs,” he continues. “I see them as memories.”

Thatcher’s Children by Craig Easton will be published by GOST Books to coincide with the exhibition Is Anybody Listening? at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool from 12 January – 26 February 2023, before touring the UK.

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