Let this be a sign

Let this be a sign

Photographer Simon Roberts needs little introduction. Having made the leap to long-term, large format projects, he has managed to use the beauty of the photographic moment to get under the skin of the societies he is documenting, be they in Russia or England.

His latest work looks at the recession, a subject that is often pictured in a simplistic manner with photographs that do not penetrate to the heart of the issue. Here, Simon talks about the work and offers an insight in to the process and influences that shaped the final piece, explaining how he has managed to steer away from a shallow representation.

Simon Roberts

Between 2007 and 2008, I made an extended journey across England to produce the work We English. As I did so, the credit crunch unfolded; large institutions previously presumed to be immovable features of the economic landscape teetered on the brink of collapse. Twenty months later, I returned to many of the same places, this time for my series The Election Project (where I was commissioned as the official election artist by the House of Commons).

Amidst the scandal of MPs' expenses, the landscapes were alive with canvassing candidates and political slogans, echoing with warnings of cutbacks and imminent hardship. Since then, the resulting coalition government has been pursuing a radical programme to eliminate the UK's structural deficit, initially within the lifetime of one parliament. I decided it was important to continue my exploration of the British landscape and photograph the reaction to this huge economic change.

Occupy London

Of course, one of the ways we remember an economic crisis is through its images. When we recall Depression-era America, we think of the black and white portraits of men in bread lines, wearing placards that beg for work, by the likes of Dorothea Lange and other Farm Security photographers. Recalling Thatcher's Britain, we see news pictures of the miners' strike or Paul Graham's stolen moments from the inside of dole offices.

While barely a day goes by without more grim economic news, the current recession has been largely invisible, perhaps due to the challenges of representing abstract monetary systems or because the outward signs of today's economic struggles are hard to capture without resorting to cliché, even though the eventual effects - a lost job, a vanishing pension, cut backs to social services - are intensely personal and painful.

Over the past eighteen months, I've been attempting to cut through some of the statistics and abstractions to explore different ways of representing the effects of these changes on the landscape. In this new series of work, I'm following in the humanist photography tradition - employed by some of the most influential British documentary photographers of the last century - whilst also incorporating the signs, iconography and language that have become so much a part of this "era of austerity".

As a result, my approach has been more multi-disciplinary than previous projects, using video, text and objects such as protest banners, as well as digital collages, in an attempt to find ways of recording our new predicament.

For instance, the Credit Crunch Lexicon is a text-based work which draws upon the diversity of economic, political and philosophical terminology that has now become part of our vernacular. Arranged alphabetically to create a form of concrete poetry, the words and phrases scrutinise the miasma of rhetoric, hyperbole and, sometimes contradictory terms used to describe the credit crunch. I collated the text from political speeches, papers from the governor of the Bank of England, newspaper headlines, protest poster slogans and economic reports, all of which reference the economic situation from 2007 to 2012.

Sale signs
TUC demonstration 2009
Leeds Council meeting
LLoyds traders
Finsbury Square Occupy movement
Peckham sticky notes wall of messages

In other pieces, I try to capture the more visible manifestations of economic change, such as the omnipresent sales signs in shop windows enticing us with their bright colours, shouty promises and seemingly massive price reductions, as well as creating a montage of shuttered high street stores (the UK high street has been one of the major casualties of the credit crunch, with a recorded dive in consumer spending leaving a wake of failed shops).

The increase in demonstrations, student sit-ins and union strikes has been a major part of the reaction to the economic cuts, and often very present on the landscape.

We've also seen a plethora of homemade, low-tech protest signs - ironic given the way protesters and movements such as UK Uncut use social media to rally their followers. I've collected a few hundred of these posters (which were discarded after anti-cuts demonstrations held over the past year), and these will be displayed in the gallery.

The placard is something that's been around for two centuries - an important way of conveying people's anger or ideas. But the use of homemade placards by individuals has not historically been a part of demonstrations and is quite a recent development. In some ways, their recent appearance suggests that while an individual is happy to march for a specific cause, they remain outside formal political organisations. Compared to the angry slogans of the 1970s, the tone of the placards is quite gentle, with an underlying element of British humour.

Finsbury Square Occupy

The Occupy London movement almost became an art installation in itself. Between mid-October and late February, the encampment outside St Paul's Cathedral focused the protest against corporate greed and briefly became part of the local landscape. The digital montage I created uses some of the hand-crafted notes, messages and signs posted up on the mock-Romanesque columns around the cathedral and Paternoster Square before the camp was closed down at the end of February.

There are photographs, too, taken inside city halls around the country, where the 2011/12 annual budgets were agreed and major cuts signed off. One example is Leeds Civic Hall, where the council meeting was delayed whilst protesters were removed from the council chamber by police. The budget was agreed behind closed doors, with cuts totalling £90m (areas affected include the loss of 1,500 posts, closure of adult social care centres, savings in back-office operations and a cut in grants to arts organisations).

As has become quite common in my practice, I've also added a collaborative element to the exhibition encouraging public participation. If you would like the opportunity to share your experiences of the recession and its effects, you can leave a message on the Public Wall in the gallery, or via Twitter using the hashtag #LetThisBeASign.

This work, and associated exhibition at the Swiss Cottage Gallery, aims to convey a multitude of voices and provide an incisive depiction of contemporary British reality. Our means of organising protests and campaigns may have become more technologically sophisticated, but our means of self-expression - camps, banners, graffiti - remain straightforward, primitive even, rooted as they are in our personal experience, our sense of justice, our vulnerability and our expectations of those in positions of power.

As the new financial year progresses with continued chaos in the eurozone and recovery slower than predicted, there is no guarantee that the fiscal landscape will improve. In this sense, my work is unresolved. The installation is ongoing, mutable and subject to all of our fears and desires.

You can find out more about the work on Simon Robert's website and it is on show as part of the London Festival of Photography at Swiss Cottage Gallery in London from 25 May to 1 July 2012.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I felt confused & couldn't quite put my figure on the work. Lacking focus and trying to be too clever. I’m not comfortable with an art photographer making work which could potentially sell in a Art Gallery for big bucks of an issue dealing with the evils of capitalism. A word comes to mine CRASS, also the name of the seminal anarchy art collective. Some respect due tho for tackling these issues

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Those who imply photography is not art simply don't understand the nature of the medium. Just because you are constrained to capturing real life doesn't mean there is no artistic content. The photographer chooses the way in which the photo is shot and edits it according to their artistic interpretation. They alter the natural event consciously to invoke a deliberate response in the audience.

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    Comment number 25.

    It is what you don't see that matters. You can't see the debt and political incompentancy, yet it is this debt and incompetancy which is the driving engine of the times. The way forward is to have a revolution and bring in a new currency and new tethered political class. You can't see the revolution brewing but you know it is out there brewing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    In 1980, my eldest brother remarked that the number of good wagons in Wolverhampton rail marshalling yard was a fair indicator of fluctuating economic activity - I imagine some kind of time-lapse montage might help illustrate the point.

    Similarly, a record of the changes of tenant of some chosen small high street shops might show that the recent ups and downs are not that "invisible" after all.

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    Comment number 23.

    I disagree with one poster here that photography is not an art, but I do think that the fact we can all take decent photos with our digital camera makes it hard to see what is a great photo. Most of the professional pics I see lauded in the modern art world don't tell us much about the way we live today or anything else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    First saw this subject on the website at about 4.00 this morning. Now 12.22. 21 comments in over 8 hours is a total waste of a comments topic. However, as I am a photographer, please let me become famous by producing dross like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Photography is not art, it's taking photos which is fine but it is not art. Modern art is not art either, it's a 'bit of a con' alternative investment vehicle for grubby rich businessmen. Other than that you have photographed these things reasonably well and it was a neat idea, good on you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    If he's looking for more material covering the run up to the Scottish independence vote could put him in an almost unique position

    Most UK media outlets are avoiding it as much as possible and the archive material available if the UK ceases to exist in just over 2 years, a historical moment in British history, will be scanty at best

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Oh look, some collages and blurry photos - it must be an art exhibition!

    Instantly forgettable, unlike the FSA archive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Umm,I am not without sympathy for those struggling but this doesn't really spark anything in me. Its not provocative, it doesn't make me angry or sad,it has little artistic merit.Any 15 year old art student could have done it to be honest. Dull.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I quite like this, to be fair. I smuggled a camera into my local Woolworths four years ago when it was closing down to snatch a photo of people looking completely bemused standing in front of a half-empty pick'n'mix in an otherwise devastated store. Technically not great, but still powerful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    That someone has stopped life for just a few minutes and captured the mundane is something quite poignant really. Regardless of those who see nothing of merit in these images, the Project to me speaks volumes. We're so busy running through life that these scenes are ones we just take as normality now.

    Also the link to Simon's website doesn't work, you've got an extra H in the http.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I like the collages of many signs but I have to say (and I hate doing this because I like sticking up for artists) that the rest of his pictures really aren't anything special.

    It seems that as long as you have a name and a gallery you can present boring pictures and "gritty". Sometimes it feels that all you need to be an artist is belief that you are an artist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Stick up a few mortgage and credit card ads, and pictures of estate agents and stills from property programmes. Would at least give an interesting "action and consequences", before and after, allegedly-happy vs. sad juxtaposition element to it. As it stands, it's hardly thought-provoking stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Just as long as he photographs the mess this country is in as well. Litter everywhere, dog mess, chewing gum on newly laid pedestrian precincts. Obviously recessionary times are a fine excuse for people to mess up the environment and not take responsibility for the trappings of the stuff they buy. It doesn't cost to be tidy and hygienic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Very unimaginative. There's nothing original in these images.
    Try focusing on the people not things to tell the story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    ahh protesting, the easiest way to look insane and not actually achieve anything

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The images taken by the Farm Security Administration have been used by past generations to form an impression of what the Depression meant to everyone affected by the Dust Bowl. It is only by documenting what is happening now (hardly just ‘a campsite’ #6) that future generations can look back and begin to understand the impact on the day-to-day life. Art is not these images’ only function.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Start of the Article "Photographer Simon Roberts needs little introduction".
    Sorry mate never heard of him.
    Artistically it's like collecting Beer mats.


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