Beyond Caring is not a fun book to flip through while stuffing your face with peanuts over an aperitif. This book will absorb you and bring you face to face with Paul Graham and his subject: unemployment and the British welfare state in 1984–85. Not too upbeat? Yet fun is not the point: photography, especially in the early 1980s, was not yet meant to be museum-worthy and contemplative, let alone to boost the art market or brighten up second-home living rooms. One might say, although this is not a dogma, that photography’s utilitarian virtues seemed more essential than its visual qualities.
In this respect, Paul Graham’s reportage, done when he was “young and gullible” (he was born in 1956 in England), even “idealistic,” he adds, caused a certain stir, which is all the more significant that, flat broke at the time, he attended in person these enclosed social appointments. Hence his legitimacy. What irritated some of his peers was Graham’s use of color, seen as almost indecent, since, according to them, such a subject should be treated in black and white, à la W. Eugene Smith (1918–1978), the master of dramatic shadows. Loneliness, misery, distress are all fine, but not in color! That’s ludicrous! It’s true that the welfare office waiting rooms have never made the covers of home design magazines: they are too gloomy and not very romantic. But are the unemployed just freaks?
“My intention was to take the most hackneyed themes of photojournalism and to kick them into a new photographic era. To get to the worn-out heart of things and bring it back to life.” This was an ambitious gamble, born out of a commission from The Photographers’ Gallery, London, which took Paul Graham to Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, and London. Wherever he went, he saw the consequences of the ruthless policies of UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990): an unfathomable sadness beneath neon lights; cigarette butts, empty plastic cups, and bits of papers strewn on the ground; dilapidated walls; the unemployed collapsed on red benches, crowded together like sardines, intoxicated with fatigue, their hands in their pockets, their stares empty, their bodies oxygen-deprived, like some rare plants. And, beneath all that, the sensation of an exercise in humiliation, of being exposed at a time when future no longer exists. It is like being in a Philip K. Dick novel: welcome to an ordinary hell.
In his afterword to the new edition, Paul Graham (who has lived in New York since 2002) recalls the 1980s in Great Britain, and the workers who became “poker chips in a strategic game.” He also explains that he did not ask permission from every person he photographed, which would have been impossible, but that this type of photography, taken “directly from nature,” paints the world the way it is and not “the way it should be.” Thank you, Paul Graham.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she contributed to the photography column. She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Paul Graham, Beyond Caring, MACK, 84pp., €50. Texts by Steven Cooper, Anne Hollows, and Paul Graham.
To learn more, visit Paul Graham’s website.