In photos: 35 years of British working class photography

In photos: 35 years of British working class photography
A new Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition, ‘After the End of History: British Working Class Photography’ curated by Johny Pitts pulls together the work of two dozen working class photographers across the country.

In 1989, as the fall of the Berlin Wall promised a hopeful, connected, new world order, political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama declared the “End of History”. With Soviet communism all but finished, his argument ran that Western liberal democracy had ultimately won out as the final form of human governance. Yet with one-sided wars currently raging in the Middle East and the West’s inability (or refusal) to stop them, rapidly increasing rates of poverty, and existential crises as technology threatens to upend society as we know it – perhaps Fukuyama got a bit ahead of himself.

“You have the end of communism, and this idea from Fukuyama, which was of course completely misguided,” says Johny Pitts – a writer and photographer who has curated the new Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989-2024. “But it got me thinking: ‘What if you have working class artists, or people identifying as working-class taking images after that really iconic moment?’ What became of working-class culture? And in some ways, it’s me trying to work out my life growing up working class and it doesn’t seem as coherent as it did [for] the generation before.”

That moment forms the framework for the exhibition, which draws on the work of over two dozen working-class photographers across the country from the past 35 years. Featured are the likes of Elaine Constantine’s shots from ‘90s Northern Soul dances, Kavi Pujara’s love letter to Leicester’s present day South Asian community, and Sam Blackwood’s surreal still life pictures featuring drinks bottles and ephemera.

Elaine Constantine Steve in his kitchen 1993 Courtesy the artist

“My work is normally all about inclusion,” Pitts – who has previously created books celebrating Black European photographers, and a search for Black Britishness around the fringes of the UK – explains. “But this became an exhibition about who I wanted to exclude. With class you have so many artists from [working-class] backgrounds, and suddenly it opened up this world of possibility, and the potential for so many different artists who sit side-by-side in a kind of new way.”

It means that many of the most instantly recognisable photographers known for their work in documenting working-class communities and cultures don’t feature in the exhibition – think Tish Murtha and Chris Killip, whose stark, black-and-white images in the ‘70s and ‘80s helped shape British working-class photography and perceptions of the communities they captured.

“You have all these social documentary photographers who are canonised – people who I really admire by the way – but I feel like everyone knows that work really well,” Pitts continues. “I feel partly because of Thatcherism, working-class culture lost its way a little bit and was commodified, then you have new fusions of music that came through in the ‘90s and I thought it would be interesting to explore this time frame which is so often missing when we think of what working-class Britain looks like.”

Eddie Otchere Goldie Metalheadz at the Blue Note in Hoxton Square in 1995 Courtesy the artist

There’s an enjoyable mishmash of work, ranging from Artúr Čonka’s warm portraits of the Roma of Newport to Eddie Otchere’s shots from the halcyon days of jungle. The exhibition does not serve as a survey of British working-class photography, but instead a celebration of art and image-making from the margins of society, and the diversity of the working-class experience. Within the pictures come a range of emotions, from moments of joy on dancefloors, to bleaker portrayals of life.

“I wasn’t specifically looking for a celebration, I was looking for something a bit ambivalent,” Pitts says. “I think it’s too easy to turn working-class people into avatars for some moral point or politics, whereas with this I wanted to let it breathe. Some of it feels quite happy because working-class life is not all bad, but some of it feels haunted, you know.

“Like you have work by somebody like Khadija Saye, which is very haunting, and of course she was a victim of the Grenfell Tower fire. Or people like J A Mortram, who is a carer,” he continues. “So you have moments of darkness, moments where people are partying. But the one thing you have running throughout all the images is a depth and a soulfulness.”

Ewen Spencer Necking Twice as Nice Ayia Napa 2001 Courtesy the artist

After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989-2024 is on view at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry from March 29 until June 16, Focal Point Gallery, Southend from July 3 until September 14, and Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham from September 27 until December 14

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