Celebrating Tish Murtha: A working-class gaze

The Clandestine’s Social Mobility and Class Officer Emily O’Sullivan is a Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics graduate with an interest in poetry, Russians, and instigating political debates in a variety of South London pubs.

[Featured Image: Black and white photograph of Tish Murtha.]


‘I asked her what she wanted to photograph, and she said, ‘I want to take pictures of policemen kicking children,’ and I said ‘You’re in.’ It was the shortest interview I had ever done’

– David Hurn on Tish Murtha

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In 1980, social documentary photographer Tish Murtha (born in 1956) wrote an essay titled Youth Unemployment in the West End of Newcastle, influenced by the climate of the disadvantaged Northern community that she grew up in. In it, she gave a searing account of life for many working-class people in Newcastle, documenting how one mother – who was only 20 years old – turned to ‘prostitution’ after her ‘temporary position’ as a painter and decorator came to an end. Murtha states that when ‘the pressures of earning her living intensify, she swallows her prescribed tranquilizers, and then she slashes her arms with nails, razors and pen-knives.’

She details many more of these poignant realities, until she ultimately concludes that ‘there are barbaric and reactionary forces in our society, who while having no intrinsic appeal to youth themselves, will not be slow to make political capital from an embittered youth.’ Looking through the pages of her work, however – only recently brought into the public eye by her daughter, Ella Murtha – there is no explicit sense of anger. In fact, whilst it is clear that she held Thatcher’s government to account for the issues in her community, she documents her subjects with such intimacy, that this almost falls into the background. The subject, for Murtha, is not used as a political weapon.

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This, arguably, is what is so interesting about her photography. Murtha shows a life that isn’t wholly miserable, whilst it is poverty stricken. A sense of darkness, boredom, and the never-ending cycle of unemployment does run throughout her work. It shows kids with dirty hands smoking cigarettes, and it shows sex workers on the streets of Soho. It shows children jumping out of first floor windows onto a pile of old mattresses. And whilst it illuminates the undoubtedly mundane side of working-class life, its focus on youth is also a suggestion of something that runs deeper in working-class communities. It shows, in short, that no matter how rough life is, there is a sense of camaraderie and a willingness to ‘make do’.

Not only this, but it escapes this feeling of being wholly depressing precisely because the streets feel like they are the spaces of the working-class. The girls perching on their neighbours’ walls, sitting in the rubble in the streets, and jumping on the abandoned cars, all give a sense of a world without limits. There is an undoubtable closeness within these communities, where you shared what you had with your neighbour, and in many cases simply walked into their homes without so much as a knock. It is a life that any older working-class person will tell you about, whether they lived in the North or the South, and it is alive and breathing in Murtha’s works.

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The warmth of these communities, however, is something that simply couldn’t be portrayed through the lens of a middle-class photographer, and it is only depicted by Murtha because it was the society that she knew, understood, and could subsequently observe. In fact, many of the subjects were her close family members, and others were those who she had intimate friendships with, based upon a mutual understanding. She wanted to show what life was like for the people that she knew – and loved – and it was something that could never be captured by a middle-class BBC filmmaker. What draws me to Tish Murtha is not the fact that she had a good eye for photography (which she undeniably did) but that her work relies upon the commonalities between her and those that she shoots. In a way, Murtha herself is also the subject.

To put this into perspective, Chris Coekin primarily photographs working men’s clubs, and has done so for ten years. Yet sometimes, when he shoots photographs in the clubs that he frequents, people ‘ask who the hell I am.’ Despite his explanations, he is often met with the response: ‘Well, I’ve never fuckin’ seen you.’ Working-class communities have the tendency to be characteristically territorial, and sometimes impenetrable. Walking into some pubs now in ex-mining towns, whilst not being known as a regular, can lead you to feel like an intruder in your own community. In short, the middle-class photographer would likely benefit from pointing the lens elsewhere, not only because doing so would seem like less of an attempt at a ‘poverty safari’.

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These relationships – which can even prove difficult to navigate when both the photographer and the subject are working-class – are important for those who document the realities of life under austerity even in 2019, which can be seen in the work of Jim Mortram. In an interview, Simon – who is shot by Mortram after he suffers from an epileptic seizure – is asked, ‘Is Jim a friend, or is he a photographer?’ Simon responds, ‘well, he’s both actually.’ This feeling, whether it is behind the work of Tish Murtha in the 1980s, or the work of Mortram now, is what is so important about the gaze of working-class artists and photographers, whose art of conveying a story relies upon the strength of the relationship behind it.

Tish Murtha, until her untimely death in 2013, was one of the most important social documentary photographers in the UK, and her work remains a potent reminder that injustice was (and still is) rife amongst working-class communities. She undoubtedly shows that unemployment and poverty are not only issues for older members of these communities, but rather that they hang over some individuals from the beginning of their lives. This is something that the young people she captured were aware of, as they looked down the lens of Murtha’s camera at a woman who was a familiar presence; one of them. Sometimes a family member, but needless to say, a friend, and a woman who showed life as it was for the kids who were kicked by policemen.


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Featured image credit: Wikipedia.

Other images courtesy of Ella Murtha.





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