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.

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.

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.

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.