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‘Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience’ Interview with Paul Sng

22 October 18 interview: Alex Kuster

‘Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience’ gives a narrative to those forgotten by the media and government in modern Britain.

The book features the work of several accomplished documentary photographers, to show the untold stories of those affected by issues such as Brexit, austerity, de-industrialisation and social upheaval.

The Broadway are hosting a screening of the Invisible Britain: Sleaford Mods film with a panel Q&A to discuss the book with director/editor Paul Sng, Carl Phillips and photographers David Severn and Laura Dicken.

We sat down with Paul Sng, to talk about the book...

Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind Invisible Britain?
The book was inspired by my first film, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, in which we followed the band on tour in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. In each town or city we met with local people and asked how unpopular government policies had changed their areas and what, if anything, they were doing to resist them. To describe the people we met as ‘ordinary’ would do them a disservice, given the extraordinary efforts they had taken to protect and preserve their communities. From Stockton-on-Tees to Southampton, Barnsley, Lincoln and many other neglected pockets of the UK, what we saw wasn’t ‘Broken Britain’, but rather the front line of nationwide resistance. In December 2016, I started to think about how a book of portraits and stories might serve as a vehicle for people whose lives have been blighted by government failures and neglect to have their say.

What issues are you trying to address within the book?
The idea for the book was developed to focus on people affected by social issues including austerity, deindustrialisation, housing, welfare cuts, and the rise in nationalism and xenophobia. In consideration of John Grierson’s formulation that documentary is ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, each story is told by each person in their own voice; less ethnography and more direct testimony.

Why is it called Invisible Britain?
The title refers to elements of Britain, both socially and geographically, that are frequently ignored or overlooked. Communities that have been neglected by the Westminster system of government and suffered as a result of deindustrialisation during Thatcherism, and a lack of sufficient investment during the New Labour years.

How are you trying to bring a narrative to these issues?
It’s all about individual stories, rather than an overall narrative. Each person gets to tell the reader something about their life in their own words.

What do you think these stories say about Britain today?
I think the stories show that a lot of people are experiencing incredibly difficult times, but that they’re also finding ways to help themselves and other people. They show people who have shown great resilience in the face of personal tragedy and harsh life experiences, or found hope amongst the ruins of austerity and deindustrialisation.

Why do you think we have to give these people a voice on a separate platform to mainstream media?
I don’t think we give them a voice as such, but rather try to amplify their voice. It’s important that we see people with lived experience in the mainstream media, rather than endless coverage of vapid celebrities and the Royal Family.

What do you want people to feel when they read Invisible Britain?
Empathy. Hope. Informed.

On a societal level, I think we all need to listen to opposing views more and stop being so abusive to people who we disagree with on social media, which is wonderful in many ways, but toxic in others.

What changes do you think need to be made?
Where to start? I think our model of government and the two party system isn’t fit for purpose. We need representatives who reflect the majority of people rather than a fraction of the population. On a societal level, I think we all need to listen to opposing views more and stop being so abusive to people who we disagree with on social media, which is wonderful in many ways, but toxic in others.

With Lisa Mckenzie and Sleaford Mods being involved - Nottingham is certainly shouting about change! Are there any other links to our city?
One of our photographers, David Severn, is based in Nottingham and took a portrait of an ex-miner named Carl Phillips, who’s all based in Notts.

Can you tell me a bit about the film with Sleaford Mods?
I co-directed it with Nathan Hannawin. It was shot in 2015 and took 11 months from concept to releasing in cinemas. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a camera; I’d not considered making a film before then. I thought the idea of following Sleaford Mods on a tour of small venues in areas that bands don’t often play would make for compelling story and then came up with the ‘Invisible Britain’ element. It’s a part band doc, part state of the nation film. Bits of it are pretty raw; it was made with a combination of ignorance and courage. Much of what it says about the state of the country is still relevant, sadly.

Is there anything else we can look forward to seeing around the whole Invisible Britain movement?
We’re in early development to set up Invisible Britain as a platform that will work with underrepresented individuals and communities to amplify their voices and help enable them to to tell their stories in the arts and media. The platform will also run workshops on the creative arts, a mentorship scheme and provide practical support and advice regarding creative opportunities, as well as offering paid work placements on film and television productions.

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is published on 01 November 2018 and is available from booksellers. To celebrate the release, there will be a book launch Q&A and screening of Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain at Broadway on Mon 05 Nov.

Tickets available here.
Watch the book trailer here.

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