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Paul Sng on New Book Invisible Britain: Portraits

3 April 18 interview: Bridie Squires

Invisible Britain: Portraits is a forthcoming photography book edited by filmmaker Paul Sng and co-curated by Chloe Juno and Laura Dicken, that will feature stories and portraits of individuals across the UK who have been impacted by austerity...

Paul, can you explain the idea behind the Invisible Britain: Portraits project?
It’s a photographic ethnography book featuring stories of hope and resistance from unheard voices across Britain. People campaigning against austerity and cuts to public services, or the impact of deindustrialisation on their community. From a veteran of the Battle of Orgreave to an ex-military transgender woman, through to a Cumbrian fell farmer and a Syrian refugee, these are the voices of Invisible Britain; 40 stories about finding hope among the ruins of austerity Britain, shot by 40 brilliant documentary photographers working in the UK.

What are you aiming to achieve with the book, including fundraising goals?
To amplify the voices of people who may feel misrepresented in the media and out of sync with the government and politicians. Negative and stereotyping narratives which misrepresent residents of council estates, benefit claimants, migrants, refugees and other minority groups often encourage the public to adopt detrimental opinions about those people. This stigmatisation makes it easier for politicians to make decisions that can damage those communities. Invisible Britain will explore the impact of austerity and cuts to public services and show the reality of modern Britain from the perspective of those who often feel disenfranchised by the state or misrepresented in the media. 

We’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the book's initial development costs and to cover the photographer’s fees. There’s no minimum donation and funders may choose to select from a range of rewards in return for a contribution, including copies of the book and limited edition postcards.

How does the book hark back to the documentary you made?
The idea for the book arose from a feature documentary that I co-directed in 2015. Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain followed the Nottingham band Sleaford Mods on a tour of the UK in the run up to the 2015 General Election, visiting some of the neglected, broken down and boarded up parts of the country that many would prefer to ignore. In each location we met with members of the local community and asked them how austerity, de-industrialisation and unemployment had impacted on the area and what they were doing, if anything, to resist this.

It would do them a disservice to describe the people we met as ‘ordinary’, given the extraordinary efforts they had taken to protect and preserve their communities. From Stockton-on-Tees to Southampton, via Barnsley, Lincoln and many other neglected pockets of England, what we were seeing wasn’t ‘Broken Britain’, but rather the frontline of nationwide resistance to the breakdown of the places they live. This book will be a means for people from across the UK whose lives have been impacted by government failures and neglect to tell their stories in their own voices.”

Abdullahi Andover & Six Acres - Photo by Cian Oba-Smith

What are some of the main challenges the portrait subjects are facing currently?
Marginalised communities are rarely heard from in the media, and it took the Brexit vote for politicians to take notice of the anger and frustration in areas that voted predominantly to leave the EU. In some respects, the EU referendum was also a referendum on the poor state of public services, the lack of affordable housing, and a protest vote against government. The accusation that the people who voted to leave the EU were thick and ignorant misses the point; politicians were lax in their duty for not paying attention to the concerns of people in areas that have suffered for decades from deindustrialisation and cuts to public services. Many of the people who feature in Invisible Britain are grassroots campaigners who work outside of Westminster or local politics. They do their politics on the streets and have been very effective in their work to resist austerity and campaign against injustice.

How have you been careful not to create something that could be seen as “poverty porn”?
I absolutely loathe poverty porn TV shows, or anything that demonises people on lower incomes or who claim benefits. The damage done by programmes like Benefits Street and Skint is immeasurable; they’ve stigmatised not only people who claim benefits, but also people who live in council housing, which has made it easier for politicians and property developers to demolish estates due to the perception that no one would want to live in that type of housing. 

Tell us a bit about co-curators Chloe Juno and Laura Dicken and what it’s been like working with them
Chloe and Laura have been pivotal to the project. At the start, I only knew a handful of photographers, so Chloe and Laura have been instrumental in both researching and commissioning the people producing the work that will appear in the book. They’re both photographers themselves, so they have a great insight into the art and practice of photography. It’s been a pleasure working with both of them.

Polk Salad Annie at home in Doncaster - Photo by Graeme Oxby

Tell us a bit about the workshops and creative projects that’ll be run off the back of the book?

The book will be the first step towards creating a platform called Invisible Britain that will showcase a diverse range of creative projects by individuals and communities. We want to enable people from areas and communities that have been neglected and marginalised to tell their own stories and find a way into creative industries. This will include setting up workshops around various art forms, a mentorship scheme and practical support and advice regarding creative opportunities.

Was there anything else you wanted to say?
A big thank you to everyone who has contributed to the campaign so far. Arts funding has been reduced significantly since 2010, which makes crowdfunding the most realistic way of realising projects like this.

Invisible Britain: Portraits GoFundMe page

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