Roxanne Baptiste Interviews photographer and urbanist, Paul Halliday, about his experiences of photographing London’s streets over a twenty-year period.
You are a full-time academic based at Goldsmiths, University of London and a practicing photographer; how do you combine the two areas?
Good question; I frequently wonder about how I manage to keep a balance between the two activities. I suppose a response would be that my role at Goldsmiths compliments my practice as an urban photographer; I don’t see the two areas as antithetical, but rather think of them as overlapping activities. Goldsmiths brings me into contact with some world-class academics, researchers and students; and as I’m based in one of the top sociology departments in the UK, there’s plenty happening that directly feeds into what I think of as a critical urban photographic practice.
When did your interest in photography begin?
I started photographing whilst at school. I went to what would probably be called a ‘failing school’ now. I don’t think anybody noticed that I hadn’t attended any maths lessons for some considerable time, or for that matter, that the geography teacher had put the same lesson up on the blackboard for us to repeatedly copy out for several weeks. My refuge was the school art department - aged sixteen I started running the darkroom - along with the music and English departments; so oddly, although the wider school was not a particularly edifying experience, I learnt quite a bit about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bach and Shostokovich, which in many ways provided a foundation for my later life as a photographer. And I got to play quite a bit of rugby.
My father realized that I was becoming increasingly interested in photography and asked me if I would like a ‘proper camera’ for Christmas. We went to the local camera shop together and decided that a glistening Praktica SLR would be just perfect. And then this made things even worse, as for a period, I hardly went to school. I still don’t know how I managed to get through my secondary school exams, given that most of my time was spent wandering around south London pursuing my new interest. I realized that there was something quite magical about photography, something musical and poetic, and I saw that in photography I could combine the things that kept me interested in the world, that enabled me to think about society and my place in it.
I had a fantastic English teacher who insisted that we should read at least one broadsheet a day, and would quiz us on current affairs and the way photographs were used as documents of reality. This got me thinking all sorts of things, including international relations and politics, and I started to realize that photography was a deeply political activity and that it had a language of its own, so I started reading around the theory of photography and truanting to galleries all around London. I remember bunking off and going to a Cartier-Bresson exhibition in central London when I should have been preparing for an exam. Looking back, I suspect that my teachers were aware that I was finding my own way in the world, and left me to get on with it. I don’t think that could happen now.
For some reason, still a mystery to me, the Head Teacher decided to make me a senior prefect once I had started A levels, and this meant that I got to spend even more time walking around parts of Greenwich under the pretext of rounding up some of the wayward boys who used to loiter outside the gates of Plumstead Manor, the local girls school. In order to coax them back to school, I started photographing them and talking about photography which they quite liked. The school had a youth club, and the youth worker in charge noticed that I had been successful in persuading some of the younger boys to become interested in something that had meaning for them; and so I was invited to become a photography teacher in the youth club at the age of seventeen.
Apparently, I was the youngest tutor in ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) and they couldn’t pay me until my eighteenth birthday, so I received six months of back-pay a month after I turned eighteen. That was quite something in those days, and I remember thinking that it was incredible that I could be paid for doing something that was enjoyable and enriching the lives of people only a few years younger than myself. I think a few eyebrows were raised in youth service when it became known that I was tutoring at such a young age, but those were different days and people were more inclined to think outside of the box.
As a visual artist based in a sociology department does this present any challenges or problems?
Yes, at times there are moments where experiences, understandings and approaches are, as it were – ‘lost in translation’. My situation is quite unusual in that I have been through art and media colleges (photography, film and art history) as well as social science departments (socio-legal studies, anthropology, archaeology and psychology), and I have a sense of how the disciplines can relate to each other. I don’t always feel that this is understood by some classical social scientists who have a tendency to think about the visual as a form of ‘illustration’. However, this is shifting now. The visual, especially within cultural sociology, is experiencing an explosion of new forms, and it is incredibly exciting to be right at the edge of such things.
After studying photojournalism and film-making at LCC and Central Saint Martins, I went on to do postgraduate studies in anthropology at Goldsmiths and was invited to become a visiting Fellow in the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) and this experience was incredible. I found myself surrounded by sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and urbanists; all thinking about how to make sense of and research contemporary city life; and I realized that this was one of the most relevant intellectual environments to discuss and theorise the making of urban images.
You have produced a project about London, which is to be published as a book and exhibition; how did you approach making the work?
Over the years, I managed to combine consultancy work with professional photography and film commissions, which certainly helped pay the bills. Photography is an expensive business, and if you start a long-term project, this should not be approached lightly. It’s true, working in analogue has many advantages, but these have to be balanced against the considerable costs involved with film, development and printing – some of which have been truly eye-watering! When I started the London project, I didn’t even know it was a project per se, I just realized after a few years that I had developed an unfolding visual story and that this spoke to a set of experiences that I was later to understand had deeper historical and political significances.
You work with different camera formats, do you have a preference?
In many ways, urban photographers give more consideration to ‘process’ than they do ‘the kit’. The London project was made with a variety of Leica’s - M6s, MPs and the like. When I started photographing around London in the mid-to-late eighties, there were very few photographers focusing on the capital’s streets and public places. I remember going to the East End, and working around Brick Lane, and seeing Marketa Luskacova who also worked with a Leica range-finder. We tended to acknowledge each other and eventually she came to Goldsmiths to give a talk on street photography as part of a seminar series I had organized in the mid-nineties. I find it quite intriguing that so many photographers claim to have ‘invented’ street photography in London, because when I was out on the streets during the eighties and nineties, you could go for days without seeing another photographer, and months without seeing a Leica user.
I switched to using a Leica range-finder after a professional SLR camera disintegrated when I dropped it. I found that Leicas were built incredibly well and the optics were just superb, so I saved up some of my early freelance commissions and bought a kit. Probably one of the best investments I could have made, given the nature of my early practice. It’s easy to become almost evangelical about a particular camera or format, but the main thing to remember is that the camera is a tool, and there is a deeper truth in this aphorism; it’s the mind and experience that enable the urban photographer to become responsive and creative.
Your images seem to be less concerned with journalistic or reportage moments, and more with social moments. Can you tell me more about this aspect of your work?
I think it is the work of urban photography to engage with, not only a theory of the city, but also to place oneself as a maker of images within a wider conversation about culture, history, politics and aesthetics. It’s an immense source of frustration that what has been described elsewhere as a ‘renaissance in street photography’ has in fact been anything but. What we have seen is the exact opposite and I feel an immense sense of disappointment in that I have directly supported some of the public initiatives over the last few years that have been little short of disastrous for the field.
For me, street-based urban photography is conceptually predicated on what I would describe as ‘critical visual urbanism’, that is, the making of images that speak to and of an urban cultural politics. I haven’t seen too much of this within the recent British street photography movement. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite. For instance, at the first Urban Encounters conference at Goldsmiths in 2008, the documentary photographer Paul Reas gave a presentation based on a critique of his understanding of photographic ‘immersiveness’. The feedback received from several audience members was that, given so many people attending were urbanists, and that an ethnographic way of thinking about so-called ‘local knowledge’ is inextricably linked to working with places, cultures and communities over time, to dismiss such longitudinal methods was to miss a major aspect of what urban research and visual ethnography can bring to the table. I thought that this was actually a rather generous response to Reas; my own view was that the photographer’s articulation of immersiveness suggested a certain lack of intellectual engagement with, and understanding of what sociology, cultural geography and political theory have to offer street photography. I don’t think it gave a good impression of documentary photography, and it certainly made me rethink what was and is happening in this increasingly inward-looking and defensive field of visual practice.
The London Project has taken 20 years to make and depicts images of places in London that were also shown in the Channel 4 documentary `Living With The Bunker’ which you directed in 1994. What changes have you seen in the areas you photographed?
I was approached by Channel 4’s commissioning editor Alan Fountain who had heard about my photographic work in Greenwich and across London. I arrived for a meeting with a proposal for a film exploring the rise of the far-right in the south London borough. Alan saw my photographs and pretty much commissioned me on the spot, which took me somewhat by surprise. I accepted the commission, and then started work on the background research almost immediately.
Things were very different in those days. Film-makers worked with well-funded production companies and had time to make work. What really struck me throughout the process, was just how difficult life had become for many of the communities living with the appalling agitation of far-right foot-soldiers who were focusing their efforts on many of the estates in south London and the East End. As I was teaching media production on an access course based on an estate in Greenwich, and was also working as a researcher in what was then City Polytechnic’s Sociology Department, I was acutely aware of how neo-Nazis ideologues and agitators were using the streets as an arena of politics, often through violence, in order to recruit young people to their cause. Many of the kids that became caught up in racist violence were little more than children, and it was awful to see them being used and manipulated in this way.
How did this knowledge shape the film?
In the film I briefly mentioned being on the receiving end of such neo-Nazi violence when I photographed a group of anti-Nazis distributing leaflets on the Chicksand Estate, just off Brick Lane in 1992. The small group was attacked by around forty to fifty British National Party thugs, and many of the campaigners, who frankly were not accustomed to scenes of such violence, were badly injured and hospitalized. They were completely unprepared for the level of aggression they were about to face. I had seen a number of neo-Nazi thugs in vans cruising the area earlier that day, some of which I recognized from Greenwich, and had warned the leafleteers that they were possibly about to be targeted. I had a good sense of what was coming, and decided to attach myself to the smallest group so that I could give some assistance if they needed it. It was like watching a disaster film unfolding in slow motion. I had seen so much street violence in Greenwich that I had a good idea of how the far-right worked, and I had what turned out to be a prescience about what was being planned for the anti-Nazis. They were ordinary people, trade unionists, a young mother – thankfully she didn’t have her children present – and local people who were fed up with the activities of fascists in their community.
After taking some of those injured to the hospital, I suddenly noticed that there was a trail of blood behind me, and I thought ‘look at that, someone’s been bleeding’, and then I looked down and saw my arm covered in blood. I had been stabbed and my arm fractured without even noticing it. I didn’t manage to get any images that day, and I consider my involvement as possibly one of the most useful things I have done in my career as a photographer. The Nazis quite clearly were intent on causing serious harm to people that were simply exercising a democratic right to protest, and even though I was carrying a camera, and identified myself as a photographer, I was still attacked along with the rest of the group. I had no moral option but to use what I understood to be reasonable force, in defense of others less able to protect themselves and myself, which made me a focus of their attack.
But in response to your question, these areas have changed beyond recognition. I think people visiting, living or working around Brick Lane would be amazed by how things were then. The levels of poverty and the presence of the far-right were everyday realities of peoples’ lives. There were Nazis handing out magazines and shouting abuse at locals just opposite the bagel shop at the end of Brick Lane. Spitalfields market was boarded-up and semi-derelict, and after 1pm, the Sunday market would close and there would be very few people around. Look at it now. It’s packed solidly with tourists, artists, students, financial sector workers – all sorts. And the same might be said of Greenwich. There is no longer a credible neo-Nazi presence, although it must be said that during the summer riots of 2011 after the shooting of Mark Duggan, the English Defense League made an appearance in Eltham; but I understand that the local police were quite robust with them.
The Channel Four film showed photographs of the far-right juxtaposed with footage from the Stephen Lawrence memorial service; why did you do this, given what the far right stood for in the early 1990s?
I think it is very difficult to imagine what it was like for Black families and communities back in the early 1990s. The Metropolitan Police was an institution in crisis, and part of the problem was that there was a systemic culture of denial around the self-evident failures and operational incompetencies translating across to a consistent inability to convict those people involved in the murder of Stephen and other young black men in Greenwich. Also, even if there was an awareness of institutional problems, this was accompanied by a kind of ethical stasis, an unwillingness to act. I think that was why the Lawrence case, the private prosecution, the public inquiry and subsequent conviction of two people involved in the murder, has touched a raw nerve within British society. And for good reason. When I look back at what was happening during the 1990s, the situation was very grim indeed, and I think things could have got considerably worse had it not been for the intervention of communities who were prepared to make a stand. I saw this consistently across London, whether it was a community tenants group on the Ferrier Estate – close to where Stephen was killed – or community groups in the East End prepared to confront the street violence of organized racist groups.
So it was important to include clear references to the experiences that the Lawrence family and local communities had been through, and this had a lasting impact on the way in which I thought about urban and particularly street photography, because after my experiences of directly confronting fascism on London’s streets, I understood that such images had and have the power to tell a story and also to challenge preconceptions about the lives of what might be described as marginalized ‘urban others’.
How was the London project received in the early days by galleries, art associations and the wider public?
The response was overwhelming. When the film was broadcast, most of the broadsheets newspapers gave it ‘must see’ ratings, which I think caused some consternation at Channel 4. I didn’t make the film as an ‘art work’, so it wasn’t important for me to win any plaudits for my experimentalism and left-field aesthetics – I simply wanted to tell a story about how London’s communities were being torn apart by a volatile cocktail of far-right agitation and police failure to investigate racial murder adequately. I grew up in a family of police officers, and I was from Greenwich, and so you could say my involvement was all to do with local knowledge, having an understanding of what this meant within a broader political and legal discussion, mixed with a kind of personal moral outrage.
I had a number of meetings with Neville, Stephen’s father, after the film was broadcast, some of which took place in a café in Deptford, just around the corner from Goldsmiths College, and we talked about how to shape an argument for public consumption. Right from the get-go, we understood that it was essential the film should work to support the Lawrence family’s legal case, rather than against it, as we have arguably seen within some subsequent examples from within the British media. It was a very difficult period for Stephen’s family, and I was asked to make a follow-up film for Channel 4 by Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville. At the time, the BNP had lodged a formal complaint against the broadcaster and myself as the film’s director. I was not entirely certain of what the outcome would be and I spent a lot of time working with the broadcaster’s legal team in order to mount a coherent defense of the film. The BNP complaint was eventually dismissed by the broadcast ethics body, and I realized that having been involved in such a high profile film had made me very noticeable on the streets; complete strangers were coming up to me and asking ‘aren’t you the photographer that made the film about Greenwich?’
There are some photographers who seek out publicity and love the idea of being recognized, but in my view, this is the worse possible situation for an urban photographer working in the street. ‘Recognizability’ often translates to distractions and obligated conversations at times when all you want to do is engage with and photograph the social scene unfolding in front of you. But it is odd to think that the film was the highest viewed film of that year’s main Cutting Edge strand, and as such it made history as the first Channel 4 film about a London street photographer to reach a mass audience. It also helped to support the justice campaign for Stephen and highlighted the inconsistencies of the Metropolitan Police’s spurious claims about the rigor of their investigations around the circumstances of Stephen’s murder. So, in that respect, the photographs had an impact that was summed up in in Doreen and Neville’s eyes when they thanked me for making the film. I can say that moment has stayed with me since, and that was and is, within the greater scheme of things, validation enough.
It has been said that Black photographers are often obliged to make work focusing on ‘Black identity’; your images do not seem to conform to such expectations. How do you explain this?
Well, I’m not sure what a ‘Black photographer’ should look or sound like. What makes an urban photographer a ‘Black photographer’? Certainly, my experiences of human rights campaigning have always been concerned with the human subject and central to this is a widening of the debate around what it means to be a citizen or homo urbanis located within the contemporary social landscape. I think an awful lot of time has been invested by cultural theorists in trying to lock down meanings and definitions about what constitute ‘authentic black identities’. When I was making the images in Greenwich and the East End, my concern, in part, was to make a record of how these historical events had impacted on people in these communities, and it has to be remembered that the reason why the Bunker film resonated with such a large audience, is that it was about the impact on a wider, not just Black community. It raised fundamental questions about the rule of law and the nature of police accountability and transparency within their investigations of serious racial attacks and murders.
The film was about Greenwich and the East End, and about the choices that the police and politicians would have to make around not only the management of police forensic competencies, but also how culturally diverse communities would live together. But my sense is that what is often loosely described as ‘the Black arts sector’ would have been confused by the photographic project and the film. Personally I am not surprised by this, as my view has been that such cultural figures were often little more than place men and women whose primary role was to enable various funding bodies to tick their inevitable boxes and convince their political purse-holders that they were, by virtue of continued funding, themselves in touch with a specific constituency of the wider arts public. I think there is a truly shocking amount of cynicism and political dis-engagement within the so-called Black arts sector, and many funders pay lip-service to this as it enables them to continue claiming a notional element of ‘community engagement.’ The questions that are still yet to be addressed are this – where were these organizations when young were being murdered on the streets of east and south London? What were they doing, what did they think of such things, and how did they respond?
You have spoken elsewhere of a ‘cultural ghetto’, what does this mean for young photographers who are trying to establish themselves in this field?
I think things are very difficult for young photographers trying to break into the area of street photography, particularly if they come from Black, Asian or other minority backgrounds. What I have witnessed directly over the last few years is an approach that undoubtedly views itself as ‘colour-blind’ but is in fact, anything but. Young Black photographers face a rather grim set of possibilities and the English art sector is in denial about the role that it and its proxy organizations play within the perpetuation of such inequalities.
Black photographers interested in working around street photography have been systematically excluded from what is thought of as ‘the mainstream’ perpetuating the interests of a particular cultural group. In fact, I would argue we are witnessing a new, polite form of what has been described as ‘cultural apartheid’ in London’s museum and arts sector. Groups of self-appointed people creating networks that systematically exclude people that don’t appear to fit. As an academic, I have an interest in some of the social proxemics involved with this; and if you look at the field long enough, you can discern interactive patterns involving networks of players who look after their own collective interests, and in doing so, ‘edit out’ people who do not conform to what might be described as a highly selective and purposeful ‘image of field’.
One might ask instead – ‘why are there so few street photographers of colour represented by agencies and museums in London?’ I would respond by suggesting that those organizations that claim to represent black and Asian photographers have directly contributed towards the lack of mainstream representation – despite their fatuous claims to the opposite – within street photography, and this has partly been as a result of a disengagement from the everyday lives, struggles and politics of Black and Asian communities in London. Autograph, the somewhat optimistically and misleadingly named ‘association of Black photographers’, is a pretty good example of this. But that’s another conversation for another time.
The London project is one of the largest projects you have produced spanning over 20 years. We have started to see an emergence of street photography which presents itself as something that is not learnt through engaging with theoretical approaches to the city. This has been described as a ‘snap and go’ instant approach. How is this approach supported by galleries and museums, and does it present a crisis for photographers like yourself doing longer term studies of areas and over time?
I don’t think that it represents a crisis for those of us working over time on longitudinal urban studies. Most of the photographers I am aware of that work on long term projects tend to be highly motivated and disciplined people and have a set of reasons that explain why they return day after day to the same urban spaces. In your question you point towards an implicit binary between what might be described as an ‘intuitive’, possibly even ‘shallow’ approach to doing street work. But I think this is also problematic as sometimes, superb visual images have been made by outsiders who have very little of what the interpretive anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes as ‘local knowledge’, that is, a familiarity with an area, it’s communities and cultures that is built up over time. But perhaps such photographers have a kind of spatial sensibility that goes beyond putting a flash on a pole and waiting for people to walk into frame.
It is true to say that the London work is the result of twenty long years, walking around the city, photographing in places where very little street photography was being done at the time, and I am very happy that I was able to do this in the way I did, and feel that it was a fantastic learning space to think about how one might approach photographing in the capital’s streets. But I think your question does identify a problem for those that promote less of a ‘snap and go’ and more of a ‘smash and go’ working ethic. I think of such an ethic as an institutionally embedded ideology based on the notion of unproblematic documentary realism.
You have to look closely at the group of people, and I am thinking specifically about the London context here, who think of themselves as key to such definitions. The photographic group In-Public, for instance, have promoted such a way of thinking for many years, and I had hoped that over time there would have been evidence of a meaningful engagement with critical urbanism. In fact, what we have witnessed over the last few years is very much the contrary; we have seen a rejection of meaningful engagement with urban theory and research, and the almost evangelical positioning of itself as the definer of what counts as both history and theory within the field of practice. In-Public promotes itself as ‘the home of street photography’, and this invites the questions - since when, according to whom and what does this ‘home’ look like?
I’ll give you an example; many years ago I used to print images from the London project with the late Tim Hetherington in the Photofusion darkroom, before he became a famous war photographer. We used to meet up and he gave me some very valuable and much-appreciated feedback on the London work. He told me about his plans to work around displaced communities, and as I had been employed previously by the British Refugee Council, we had a number of conversations about working with the UNHCR and refugee groups. I was very fond of Tim, and although I hadn’t seen him in the intervening years, he had been in touch with me shortly before his death to confirm that he would like to participate in a conference organized by Goldsmiths at the ICA in 2011. His death was a big blow, I can tell you, and it brought home just how fragile the existence of urban photographers can be.
When Tim was killed in the Libyan city of Misrata, one of the things that struck me was that we had spoken about his plans many years before to focus on urban work, and it is significant that he was working with a 6x7 film camera, in other words, he was making a different kind of photography, more considered, slower, perhaps a shift away from his reportage style towards image-making for books and gallery exhibitions. What was also striking was that he had been apparently targeted by pro-Gaddafi forces ensconced in tower blocks overlooking the exposed street area that he was standing in with other colleagues. Tim was a very experienced war photographer, well versed in surviving urban conflicts, and yet, even someone as experienced as he had not anticipated the consequences of standing in an exposed position. And this brings home the fact that when an organization makes claims about ‘mastering’ street photography, as In-Public have done, this stands in stark contrast to the experiences of those who have worked in this field over many years. I think those people that have in-depth experience of engaged street photography know it is a folly to think of oneself as a ‘master’ because we learn from bitter experience that the street can never be ‘mastered’.
There have been a number of events in London, the Museum of London to name just one, and a book which documents street photography in this city. Surprisingly, given your background, your work was not included. Were you consulted or invited to become involved?
How long do you have Roxanne? Where should we start with this question? The whole episode was very peculiar, and you are one of a very long line of people that have asked precisely the same question.
I had been invited to give a talk, along with the artists Rut Blees Luxemburg and Mark Power, to a packed audience at the British Library by the curator Gill Henderson. Gill had seen my London work at a Tate Britain conference, and with Andrew Watson from Central Saint Martins Art College, had asked me to talk about some of the key issues involved in making street-based projects. Mike Seaborne, as the then Senior Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London, also gave a talk. He didn’t mention that a book was in development, and I think it is absolutely the case to say that any publication that purports to give a history of street photography in London, by definition would have needed to make reference to the work of Marketa Luskacova, Rut, Mark and myself. I don’t say that as an egotistical thing; rather, I say it as a statement of fact.
Mark’s project provides an important body of work for photographers and urban theorists thinking about the urban landscapes of London’s streets - particularly around the outer-zone areas. Any discussion of London’s nightscapes inevitably brings one to the work of Rut, and Marketa’s work around London’s East End is simply legendary. It is no coincidence that Marketa had what I understand to be the first solo exhibition of London street photography at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991. It simply doesn’t really get much bigger than a solo show at such an important venue. I went to see the exhibition and remember being blown away by it.
At the time of what was previously called the London International Street Photography Festival, Photofusion held a related exhibition and seminar based on women street photographers. I had been arguing for some time that the Gallery needed to help broaden the field, and as I understand it, the Photofusion exhibition was the first street photography event solely dedicated to the collective work of women practitioners in London. The seminar was also attended by Polly Braden, Melanie Manchot (chairing) and Stephen McClaren who co-edited the book Street Photography Now. Polly, to her credit, spoke about some of the Museum of London’s difficulties putting together their exhibition London Street Photography, in 2010. What emerged was a troubling and disconcerting tale of curators struggling to find women photographers working around the street. I found this extraordinary as I was aware of, and had worked with many such photographers and artists over the years.
I became very interested in what Polly and Stephen had to say, and relatedly, Stephen explained why key practitioners such as Rut and Marketa had been excluded from the Street Photography Now book. It came as something of a surprise to learn that the editorial group had discussed the inclusion of Rut, and decided that she ‘was not a street photographer.’ There was a stunned silence in the packed room, and I found myself reverting back to my day job and taking on the persona of a research sociologist. ‘So why would the group come to such a conclusion?’ I asked. I felt that all of the bluster and self-assurance of the self-designated ‘experts’ in street photography had started to unravel in front of me at that moment. I couldn’t get a coherent response from Stephen, to what was a very direct question and I found myself cutting through the apparent dissembling by asking for confirmation that Marketa’s work had been included in the Museum of London exhibition. It hadn’t.
That is to say that one of the most important street photographers to have ever worked in London had been excluded from what purported to be a major survey show of the field. What emerged that night was a very disturbing picture of selection based on the particularities of personal taste, hopelessly out of touch and biased historiography, and an exhibition that really amounted to a kind of ‘mate-ology’. Many of the photographers were apparently associates of the curator and key practitioners had been excluded from the show. What was also apparent, was that in the section labouring under the title ‘Reclaiming the Streets’ a disproportionate number of those shown were from In-Public. McClaren confirmed that the exhibition was based on work collected by the museum; as if that should give the selection process a tautological legitimacy of the order – ‘it’s in the archive, so therefore it’s important enough to be exhibited’. A good example of what what the Romans termed a non sequitur – the implied logic didn’t follow.
It seemed that the so-called ‘home of street photography’ had now come home. They had found a curator and an institution that was prepared to promote them as the primary definers of street photography in London. I managed to get to see the exhibition and was not surprised to see that Marketa’s work was absent. This is something akin to putting on an exhibition of cubist painting and omitting both Braque and Picasso, instead, packing out the show with your mates’ watercolor paintings. As I walked around the show, I remembered the words of a visiting American urban photographer who had been to see it: ‘lots of tittering tourists there for the entertainment’.
That was a very important moment for me, as it became apparent that the Museum of London – which might more accurately be thought of as the Corporation of London Museum – had missed an opportunity to engage with not only an important body of visual research about the capital, but had also actively engaged in one of the most contemptuous acts of cultural exclusion that I had seen for some time. As an academic, I can say without hesitation that the exhibition and book raise fundamental questions about the nature of selection, editorial processes, cultural selectiveness, and of overwhelming importance – what should count as a visual archive of a city?
In this discussion, you have been very critical of street photography, what do you think the future holds for this area of visual practice?
Well, that’s not an easy question to answer and I am no futurologist. What I can speak to is a set of hopes and possibilities. Firstly, there is an altogether more sophisticated generation of visual artists working around street spaces and they have good reason to be concerned about the apparent lack of intellectual curiosity, the tired visual tropes and institutional certainties promulgated by the politically and historically disengaged who seem quite obsessed with so-called ‘documentary distance’. Experience has shown me that urban street spaces are complex and vibrant places that have depth, cultural richness; they come from somewhere and take us places –metaphorically as well as literally. And we ignore this quality at our peril if we claim to be in the business of making street images that have something meaningful to contribute towards the urban archive.
Secondly, through engaging with the social world, we have access to a set of new experiences that take us into hitherto unimagined worlds; and this isn’t just about ethnography and the emerging field of visual urbanism. It’s about being prepared to accept that urban spaces are mediated by social actors; they are mutating and changing in subtle ways where proximity and closeness give us access and enable us to engage with how people make sense of their and our worlds. Engagement comes in different forms, but what drives it, to my way of thinking, is a desire to contemplate that there may be a multi-verse of lived experiences being played out on the streets. Nothing is given, and nothing should be taken for granted.
Thirdly, I think that there needs to be a move towards a more self-questioning and sociologically-engaged way of thinking about street photography, not least because what has been described previously as the funny, foreign or strange school has had a long run; but it looks increasingly the case that photographers and urbanists are becoming more engaged with the possibilities of a re-awakened and re-imagined continuum of street-based urban visual practices that speak to the lives and experiences of contemporary city dwellers.
All photographs © Paul Halliday
Roxanne Baptiste is a Lecturer and film production manager based at Westminster Kingsway College in London. She studied media production at Birkbeck College, University of London, Film-making at Middlesex University and adult education at City University, London. For many years she worked in fashion, radio and film production management before retraining as a media lecturer. Roxanne coordinates museum education outreach and media production projects in London.
Paul Halliday is a photographer, film-maker and urbanist based at Goldsmiths, University of London. After initial training in photojournalism, film-making and law, Paul continued his studies in social anthropology, archaeology, history of art and architecture at Goldsmiths, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He is a former media advisor at the British Refugee Council and directed the Channel 4 film Living with the Bunker. He is the course leader for the international MA in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths, a director of Photofusion, founding co-director of the Association of Visual Urbanists (iAVU) and creative director of Urban Photo Fest.