Simon Roberts: Making the economic crisis visible

Over the past two years, photographer Simon Roberts has been making a series of work examining the effects of economic austerity. Here he argues demonstrations, like 20 October, are rare opportunities for people’s anger to be seen.

One of the ways we try to understand an economic crisis is through images. We are reminded of the Great Depression in America, told through the black-and-white portraits of men in bread lines, wearing placards that beg for work. Or we remember the effect of Thatcher’s Britain through photographs depicting the miners’ strike and stolen moments inside dole offices.

Today, while it seems that not a day goes by without more grim economic news, the current recession has been largely invisible, partly due to the fact that outward signs of today’s economic pain are often hard to capture without resorting to cliché. This is despite the fact that the eventual effects of such news – a lost job, a vanishing pension, cut-backs to social services – are intensely personal.

Despite the relative lack of visual manifestations of the current recession on the landscape, one area where we have witnessed a reaction to the slashing of public spending is that of protests. Over the past few years we’ve seen a significant number of demonstrations and outward displays of anger towards the coalition government’s programme of aggressive deficit reduction. It is an important way that individuals can align themselves with a particular cause, even if this is done outside a formal political organisation or union.

Witney Postal Strike, 9 January 2011. Image by Simon Roberts

For me one of the unique aspects of a protest march is the way it is able to transform a landscape, albeit momentarily. Take for example this photograph ‘Witney Postal Strike, Sunday 9th January 2011′ (above). Here we see postmen and women from the CWU Union Western Region gathered in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency of Witney preparing to march through the town in protest against coalition plans to privatise the Royal Mail. The image of the protestors, holding traditional Union banners with their heavy symbolism, stands in stark contrast to the picturesque English scene with village green and church spire.

In the foreground of the photograph is 12-year-old Nicky Wishart (wearing a black jacket, looking down the street). He was the student of Bartholomew School in Eynsham who was pulled out of class and questioned by police ahead of a public protest he’d organised against the funding cuts being made to his local youth centre by Oxfordshire County Council.

The photograph, ‘The Autonomous Social Centre, Brighton, 17 July 2011′ (below), was taken in a former mobile phone shop in Brighton, which had been taken over in solidarity with the Occupy movement. What’s interesting to me about this scene is the small details that are thrown up when you study the interior closely, from the language used in the Socialist Worker poster – which seems to be bleeding red paint – and the hand-made banners hanging in the window to the angel wings, strewn clothes and book of text by Plato on the table. There is much to read and consider about the language of protest when looking at the photograph.

Newer protest movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut manage to combine old and new technology taking advantage of social media to rally their cause and mobilise followers whilst also deploying the age-old tactic of placards, writing out demands and polemics on pieces of cardboard. At many protests we see a plethora of home-made, low-tech protest signs made by the individuals involved – made using bits of cardboard, scraps of wood and scribing their messages with felt-tips or paint.

Often messages mix anger and frustration with an underlying element of British humour. Most of these placards are then discarded at the end of the rally, although presumably many people share their image of themselves holding their placard to a much wider audience via facebook and twitter, extending the life of their message.

The Autonomous Social Centre, Brighton, 17 July 2011. Image by Simon Roberts.

You can see more images and installation shots from a recent exhibition of Simon’s work at Swiss Cottage Gallery, London, here: