Monday, 9 January 2012

The Big Society

OCA study day Sheffield January 7th 2012

Si Barber at the Bank Street Gallery

The day before I travelled north to Sheffield to this show I went south to see Mother Goose at the Oxford Playhouse (the Oxford journey is only a few miles). This pantomime is really a morality tale about greed, about false imagery and, as most panto’s, about redemption. The story of Mother Goose is that she is at first amazed that her Goose can all of a sudden lay golden eggs (the evil witch has cast her spell in this version, traditionally it is the good witch that casts that spell) which signals the end of her and her family’s penury (there’s always penury in a Panto) – and then agrees to exchange the Goose – her metaphorical soul and the means of her fortune, for beauty and youth, albeit penniless beauty (another trick of the evil witch). It is Mother Gooses family and friends that provide her salvation – her own Big Society that pulls her back from her self destruction and that of her family. The goose is also returned to normality and starts to lay regular eggs – though no one in the audience appears convinced of the gender of the goose, but then that’s Panto! Oh and they all live happily ever after.
David Cameron’s “Big Society”, which Si Barber pegged the Sheffield show on, is also notionally about greed; the Prime Minister has suggested that we should have less of it, be more caring, and be more giving. The Big Society (BS) is about holding true to values that made “our country” what it once was – in Cameron’s eye; a caring, post Blairite, post Thatcherite England when we looked after our own, rallied to the cause if one of us was in need. The age of the Thatcher individual has past, the new age is one of mutual interdependence, caring capitalism and a value system that goes right to the heart of society and traditional societal values. 

As I walked around the exhibition there were several reminders of how Barber has subverted the theme of Cameron’s BS. The study group paid particular attention to and discussed a number of images – a funeral march for a dead army private, some Morris dancers, Joy - a pensioner, a Coca cola crack pipe and two photographs of prostitutes. The conversation to the funeral cortege and the prostitutes provoked the most emotive discussions. Ethical issues about whether Barber should have been present to take the image of the cortege and about his viewpoint displaying the “Poundsaver” in direct juxtaposition to the hearse and mourners, I wonder what the study group will make of this image from his blog copyright Si Barber
Whether the staging of the propositional sex – worker shots were exploitative, what were the motives behind highlighting them by including so many of those shots by comparison to other images or subjects. Barber directs the viewer to join in the narrative in quite a few images by aligning the subject’s eye with the lens ensuring that the subject engages directly with the viewer, challenging them for a response. The prostitutes look at the viewers suggesting to me that they are accusing us of being complicit in their situation. The auctioneer of the sale of bankrupt stock is not only looking at us he is also pointing a finger. The Christian minister challenges us to converse with him, the scarecrows lock us into view with dead eyes.
Other images offer a bleak view of where the country is now, Barber says he had  travelled over 12000 miles in the process of collating the series and this is a work in progress - see below - there were several shots that were included in the show that were made after the book was published. One of these: "Joy, a pensioner" - showed a strong, senior lady, pulling her top down to reveal a tattoo on her upper chest which states: DO NOT RESUSCITATE and apparently on her neck is another tattoo stating: PTO. A woman who apparently has a clear sense of her own destiny and the role required of the BS when her time comes, namely, LEAVE ME ALONE TO DIE! This picture alone did not have the same melancholia the rest of the images had. Joy exuded joy, she got the idea from a friend who was a nurse and had probably seen at first hand what she would not want for herself or her friend. Joy had claimed her life for her own and needed no help or sustenance from anyone else.

My initial reaction on seeing the series was to buy a copy of the book and I have looked at the photographs a few times and did so just before travelling to Sheffield to see them hung. I was curious to see how the images would be mounted and wasn’t surprised to them as inkjet prints pinned to the gallery walls. I thought the presentation was entirely appropriate, though Andrew Conroy from the Bank St Gallery said that time would have been against them mounting and framing them differently, suggesting that they may have considered a more formal presentation. 

Mandy, sex worker, Sunbridge Road, Bradford. By kind permission of the artist, Si Barber.

When I asked for a photograph to illustrate this blog I asked for "Mandy" because of the images I had seen she most closely resembled one of my sisters - I have six, so there was a reasonable chance one of them would!

The selection for the show took some time, both in the photographs on display and in their relative position – “Julie, sex worker, Sunbridge Road, Bradford” was placed opposite one of the windows to the street outside – further evidence of exploitation or a determined act to engage with the public? Staying with the sex-worker theme, I was, and to some extent still am, troubled by the number of images in the book of these young women, four. All photographed in a consistent way, Barber discussed it with them prior to the shot, asking them to approach the car window in just the way they would to any ordinary potential client that they may “service” as Barber describes their labours later in his book. Is the number of them a statement about Barber’s concern for them or his ability to shock with their inclusion? How much did the act of staging the shots move the narrative to a different place? I felt it was brave to take these shots but much braver to publish them, knowing the furore that will inevitably ensue.  - see below for comment from Si Barber - Gareth challenged the study group by asking how we would go about starting a final year project on street prostitution, I have to say that I joined in the general shuffling of feet searching for a change of subject.

Thatcher when elected spoke of the absence of society, proclaiming the individual as the means by which we – me, you – should interact with our fellow travellers. We should look after ourselves, look not for what society can and could do for us – missing that she was quoting a central dialectic of Marxism, for which she has been pilloried ever since. Cameron has sought to regain the moral high-ground by his assertion that his BS is evidence of caring Conservatism and it is really about how we can offer each other services and help in a quid pro quo local society, without the need for government intervention, without the need for government services. Barber shows us this world as it is before the BS kicks in. Apparently the Labour party were interested in hosting the exhibition at their party conference before they found out that the series started whilst they were still in power. But if this is what it is like now. If this is where we start from before BS, as recorded by Barber, then I think I know what Mother Goose might have called Dave’s vision, BS it might have been but it certainly didn’t stand for Big Society and no sign of redemption coming over a very skewed horizon any time soon.
Si Barbers blog, where updates to this series can be found is and for another review of the exhibition

Communication from Si Barber 9th January 2012 - verbatim apropos the questions I asked

Hi John.............. 
Regarding the prostitutes or 'sex workers' as they are now apparently called.

I shot six women for this.  All were working on Sunbridge Road in Bradford. I wanted to shoot them from the perspective of a punter who was paying for their services. I approached each one and and told them what I wanted and negotiated a fee which was between £10 & £20.

I put four in the book  because I wanted to show the human face of the trade - someone's sister, someone's daughter etc. Whether that works I leave to the reader.

You are correct in that they are contrived - in the sense that I have instructed them to look into the window. The reason is as follows:

Practically it would have been difficult to shoot them in a strict documentary style without their consent and get usable images. 

I don't have a problem with the idea of intervening between the subject and the camera (within limits). I don't believe in the idea of a single  documentable 'truth'. The fact I'm there with the camera inevitably  changes things. 

I  wanted to avoid the cliche of the 'lady of the night' which occurs in many portrayals of prostitution. I was also interested in the idea of the subject looking back - See William Burroughs Naked Lunch for more.

Exploitation? perhaps.  Some people have criticised, naively in my view,  the fact that I have paid them for the pictures. I dont have a problem with it. I'm getting something out of it so why shouldn't they?

However the fact that they may go and spend that money on something that will eventually kill them or lead into more degradation is something I dont have an answer for.

It's my opinion that a quality of  interesting art is that it can't be completely closed down in terms of arguments, either moral or aesthetic.

Hope that helps.

Best wishes



  1. Wish I'd gone to this exhibition in my home town. It just seemed too far to go this time of year.
    I looked up Si Barber's blog and think the Poundsaver image perfectly encapsulates both modern and past times - at the bottom of it all 'life is cheap'! To paraphrase someone else, "We know the price of everything and the value of nothing" especially when we send young men off to fight a war which may have spurious causes.
    You don't need to answer this question but I'm wondering whether the image of Mandy changed whatever views you might have of sex workers - given that you chose an image that most looked like one of your sisters?

  2. Thanks for your comment Catherine. Most of the images are available either via the web or in the book which you can buy from Si via his web-site. But I agree that being in the environment where we discussed the work was a real benefit.
    As for your question, well: Mandy looks most like a few of my sisters - genetics being what it is - but the scary part is the level of exploitation and degradation and these I fear will increase over the coming years. Si refers in his response, to "The Naked Lunch" which is another excoriating tale of drug dependancy and degradation that you wouldn't wish on anyone, but at least he got to the other side of it! Perhaps if we legalise drugs it would help Mandy and her like to move to a better place? My view though hasn't changed, it is about exploitation at whatever level you slice the argument.

  3. Great write up John and a very thoughtful response from Si Barber too. I'm sorry not to have been able to go too. It seems that his work was well received and does seem to be very current. Strange how Thatcher and her own 'ism' is such a talked about phenomenon at the moment, almost like it has finally run out of steam...and here we are now...with Cameron's big society and a momentum to find an alternative to a country full of 'me's'.

    With regards the prostitute image, this is such a strong image because it is such an unassuming image of a very typical young girl. We are so accustomed to seeing the 'film-makers' version of a highly stylised version...quite an eye-opener.

  4. Thanks Penny. I had a very strange feeling at the exhibition, I felt a kind of guilt, you see Dave is my local MP, which gives me a feeling of responsibility. What is that about?

    Oh, you mean like "Pretty Woman"? Lovely film, lovely ending.

  5. Thanks for this John! Interesting post and good that you have some comment from Si Barber.

    You write ... "Ethical issues about whether Barber should have been present to take the image of the cortege and about his viewpoint displaying the “Poundsaver” in direct juxtaposition to the hearse and mourners ..." Yes, I guess there might be largely because of our attitude towards death which this image seems to be challenging. No legal objection to him photographing there.

  6. Thanks Amano - as Gareth and Jose have pointed out, there are several ways to read an image like this and the group took a good deal of time discussing this one image.