The ‘big society’ was one of the central political slogans of the 2010 Conservative Party election manifesto, and emerged as a driving force behind the Coalition’s legislative programme. This ambiguous concept has underpinned an umbrella of policies supposedly geared towards empowering local people and communities as well as transferring power from politicians to people. The ‘big society’ actually sanctions the State’s withdrawal from its social, political, moral and ethical responsibilities, while simultaneously justifying an increase in private entrepreneurial initiatives and the transference of public service contracts to the private and voluntary sector.
Unsurprisingly, there was widespread outrage when it emerged that the Coalition had attempted to translate the slogan into an intellectual agenda, and David Willetts—going against the Haldane principle which protects the independence of academic research funding—was accused of encouraging the Arts and Humanities Research Council to direct academic study of the ‘big society’ so as to secure their future funding. Consequently, we were initially reluctant to direct any energy towards this topic, and anxious that, in doing so, we might appear to be legitimating the concept of the ‘big society’ even if critiquing it. Initial discussions of the project also provoked some resistance from members of the group.
In the end, we resolved that uncritically accepting the ‘big society’ is to allow the shrinking of the State and the unethical embrace of a Thatcherite kind of entrepreneurial culture to go unchecked. The issue of the ‘big society’ also raises questions about the individual and collective’s political and social role in British society; the relations between public and private interests and spaces; and the social and political functions of community-driven practices, that impact directly upon photographic cultures, praxis and theories. We wanted to push against that resistance, and critically interrogate the concept via a series of conversations about the radical and expanding role of photography in today’s culture.
Our project calls on photographers, photo-artists, cultural critics, journalists and historians of photography, media and technology to consider the potentially devastating social and political ramifications of the ‘big society’ and its mediations. This project goes beyond any narrow preoccupation with the ‘big society’ as defined by the Coalition, and instead responds to a series of debates about the role and responsibility of photographic practice in the wake of the on-going financial crisis, the widespread protests, advance of the Occupy Movement, and the 2011 Summer riots across the UK.
Our goal is to invigorate debate about old and new photographic practices, including community photography, protest photography, citizen photography and accidental journalism as well as politicised photographic art practices. We are eager to initiate a series of provocations that respond and add to current debates about the role and place of photography in political action and social protest. Our concern is also to attend to the local histories that have framed British photographic practice since the 1970s. In turn, our project maps onto the critical histories of photography as they came to be written during this period.
We have approached the topic along three related lines of inquiry:
1. Photography and the Political Imagination
Conservative MP Jesse Norman has argued that the ‘big society’ will ‘redefine British politics for a generation’. Yet, given our image-saturated culture, the image economy generated by the Coalition appears to be remarkably sparse. The ‘big society’ doesn’t seem to have a life outside of verbal rhetoric. In order for a political ideal to be successfully communicated it needs to be open to fantasies and identification. Identification isn’t simply a matter of political affiliation; it is the organisation of the body politic around, and through, images. In contrast to Margaret Thatcher, who developed a powerful personal iconography, the coalition exists in an aesthetic vacuum. In this section, we have asked photographers and critics to consider the relationship between photography and the political imagination today by paying close attention to the making of political identities, icons and ideology. We are eager to acknowledge the ways in which photographers and photographic artists can document, activate, critique and intervene in processes of political identification, and to explore the relationship between the socialist, feminist and postcolonial mobilisations of the medium in the 1970s and the ways in which it is used today.
2. The Promise & Politics of Protest Photography: Citizen Photography/ Accidental Journalism/ Street Photography
An obvious counter to the vision of the ‘big society’ is the protest culture that has emerged over the last five years, and which also relies upon the production of new forms of community and solidarity. Many have argued that the recent rise of new forms of protest photography is inseparable from the emergence of do-it-yourself or user-generated content platforms which host and circulate such images. In this section we aim to engage with the promise and politics of protest photography and new media platforms. Additionally, we seek to explore the transformation of photojournalism and street photography since the 1970s. A further aim of our inquiry into photography’s role in the organisation of collective political actions and events is to contend with claims about the democraticising promises of these new media platforms. Does access to media necessarily provide new forms of solidarity? Or, as recent critics of user-generated platforms and its democraticising potential have argued, do they simply champion individuality and free expression in the place of grassroots collective action? At the base of this debate, and an issue we hope that this forum will consider, is a profound critique of technology. What would it mean to get beyond the promiseof photography and interrogate the politics of its use?
3. Community Photography: Past & Present
The third section of the project looks at one of the most important yet often neglected developments in recent British photographic culture: the rise of community photography in the 1970s and its relation to the politics of community photography today. Community photography in Britain was born of a convergence between political and artistic concerns and thrived in part because of the economic and political upheavals of the time. For some, it meant the teaching of analogue camera skills to the uninitiated, so that they could take pictures of themselves, their living conditions and environment for reasons of political and social activism, as much as enjoyment. For others, it meant testing the boundaries of orthodox education with new teaching methods, or in terms of publishing, redefining the production and distribution of pictures. The radical photo journal Camerawork opened up many new possibilities for community photography during the 1970s. Coming out of the Half Moon Photography collective and established by Jo Spence, Terry Dennett, Paul Trevor, Mike Goldwater and Tom Picton, it became central to the British photographic and theoretical community of the time. The photographic projects were bound together by a determination to effect social and political change through the medium of photography. Addressing the legacy of these collectives and Camerawork, we will engage contemporary photo-collectives, community projects (such as Photoworks in Glasgow and the Southampton Media Workshop), and the work of current photo-artists. What, we ask, are the political possibilities for contemporary community groups, collectives and photographic artists to today? How do these challenges relate to and conflict with the idea of community pictured by the ‘big society’?