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Is Anybody Listening? That’s the question posed by photographer Craig Easton in a new exhibition at Blackpool School of Arts. Its starting point is a set of images captured in a Blackpool homeless hostel over 30 years ago and it encompasses two major bodies of work that attempt to address Northern stereotypes. The photographs often are, but the question of representation versus misrepresentation, he reveals, is not black and white.

In 1992 photographer Craig Easton was commissioned by French newspaper Libération to document the British “underclass”. He headed to Blackpool.

Here, he met the Williams family. Mick, Mandy and their six children were trapped in a vicious cycle of joblessness and homelessness and staying in a hostel. Easton spent a week with them and documented their lives.

“They caused quite a stir at the time,” says Easton, understating the point. The photographs, titled Thatcher’s Children and also published in the Independent, came to symbolise the deprivation that was a legacy of the Conservative government of the day.

“By that point, we’d had 13 years of Thatcherism and upward mobility right through the 1980s. But there was a great swathe of the community that was left behind. This was a piece of work about that poverty trap,” says Easton, adding that the photographs have followed him throughout his career and meant a lot to him, both then and now.

Donna Williams – one of six siblings (pictured in main image) living in a Blackpool homeless hostel in 1992.

“I would speak to people and give talks and people would remember those photographs,” says Easton, who grew up in Liverpool and originally trained as a physicist at Salford University in the 1980s. He began to wonder what had become of the family, feeling he had only captured a snapshot of a much bigger story. For a long time, he says he tried to find them and, in 2016, he did.

“I would describe them as friends now really,” he says. “I’ve known them for quite a long time. There was a great hiatus in between 1992 and 2016, but when I finally kind of got in contact with them I really just wanted to go and speak to them to fill in the gaps and find out what had happened.”

Thatcher’s children had grown up and dispersed throughout the North of England. Now with families of their own, he found siblings Mark and Kristi in Darwen and their current situation held echoes of the past.

Is it poverty porn? Well, hang on, I think it’s really important that we talk about these things.

“I didn’t really have any intention of making new work with them,” says Easton. “We got chatting and it evolved slowly. I made a short film which I recorded the first time I met the family again. I showed them these old photographs and they’d never seen pictures of themselves as children. It was quite emotional, but I never did anything with that film because it didn’t feel like the right vehicle for doing it.”

In November 2017 the Financial Times published its article Left behind: can anyone save the towns the UK economy forgot? Centred on Blackpool and highlighting social and health problems such as soaring antidepressant usage and falling life expectancy, it argued that Blackpool embodied much of what is going wrong on the fringes of Britain and provoked a strong local response – similarly to how Easton’s work had in 1992.

Blackpool arts organisation Left Coast commissioned a series of artists to respond to the article intended ‘to provide a nuanced and thoughtful counter position’. Easton was commissioned to once again turn his lens on the Williams family.

Mark Williams – one of the original six Williams siblings photographed at home in Darwen with his own children

“I also started doing audio interviews and it took a long time but it’s pieced together over a period of years into what it is today… It allows the project to really talk about a longer-term issue around poverty, and saying that the situation the family is in now is built on their childhood and the problems their parents faced when they were younger. So Thatcher’s Children brings together this 30-year story of this extended family and sets it in the context of social policy.”

Images from Thatcher’s Children can currently be seen on the walls of the gallery within Blackpool School of Arts on Palatine Road. They hang alongside photographs from another of Easton’s projects, Bank Top, which has equally affecting themes.

“Bank Top is made in Blackburn and some of the Thatcher’s Children work is now in Blackburn because part of the family moved there,” says Easton. “It was made in response to the BBC Panorama programmes [White Fight] describing Blackburn as the number one segregated town in Britain.”

This time Easton was commissioned by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery as part of their project Kick Down The Barriers in 2019. The resulting work earned him the prize for Photographer of the Year at the Sony World Photography Awards in 2021.

From Bank Top – children play on the street in Blackburn

“As with all my work it’s really me going to question those things and asking, is this true? Can we go and have a look at this. What’s being shown on the BBC is using this dangerous and divisive language, so let’s go and tell stories from the point of view of Blackburners.”

Easton, who honed his craft as a press photographer, believes it’s the responsibility of journalists and other documentarians to shine a light on the “dark corners of society”,  but he sees a distinction between his work – hanging on gallery walls and enclosed in cloth-bound coffee table books (the special edition of Thatcher’s Children sells for £250, with 20 per cent being donated to the Trussell Trust) – and the likes of the Panorama programme “going in for two days and making a film about segregation”. How does he guard against making what is often referred to as ‘poverty porn’?

Just as he says he rejected the term ‘the underclass’ in 1992, he believes the term is “dangerous”.

“I really rail against these phrases that come into vogue. I don’t know when ‘poverty porn’ came in, but it seems to me that phrases like that, like culture wars, are used to shut down conversation actually…

“Is it poverty porn? Well, hang on, I think it’s really important that we talk about these things. If bandying these phrases about is shutting down debate, or it’s making photographers or artists, or journalists or filmmakers, or anyone scared of addressing really important issues in society, then I think we need to kick back against that. I think we need to ask the question, where’s the phrase come from? Whose idea is it that we should not point a finger at society and say, there is an issue here with poverty?

“Having said that, the answer to how to ensure it is not exploitative is, I don’t know. Maybe it is a little exploitative. I hope not, but really it’s a function of me spending a long time with these families and having questions and asking, can I talk to you about it? Can we have an open conversation?”

I don’t know how powerful it is but it feels like it’s important to me.

Easton says the voices of his subjects are present in his work. That it is honest and truthful and has integrity. In highlighting the plight of impoverished families, he says, he aims to hold people in power to account. Does photography have the power to affect real change?

“I don’t know whether it has that power but I think it’s part of the conversation and I think it can stimulate debate,” he says. “My local MP came to an exhibition and I’ve held debates between 16 year olds and parliamentarians where they can actually get them up on the stage and ask them questions.

“It’s a terrible cliche to say that photography is a first draft of history but, in a sense, that is what we’re doing. I feel like I’m a historian as much as a photographer and what I’m recording is work that can be looked at now and in years to come and say, this is the kind of society we live in, let’s talk about.

“It’s called documentary photography because we are documenting and recording society and I think the more we do that the more people understand.

“I don’t know how powerful it is but it feels like it’s important to me. I think a visual record of our society and our culture is critically important.”

Is Anybody Listening? is at Blackpool School of Arts until 31st May. The exhibition is presented by the University of Salford and generously supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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