Photographer Tish Murtha used her camera to celebrate overlooked working-class lives and fight for social change in Thatcher’s Britain. However, she was unable to escape the poverty she documented and died at the age of 56 with her work relatively unknown.
Together with Tish’s daughter Ella and director Paul Sng, I’ve recently completed work on a feature length documentary film which examines what made Tish’s work unique and establishes her legacy within the canon of British documentary photographers. Beyond that, the film takes a deeper look at how working class communities in Britain have been failed by successive governments from Thatcher to New Labour.
Unlike many social documentary photographers, Tish was from the same streets as the people she photographed. Growing up in Elswick in 1970s Newcastle, a volatile home life left Tish with a wary instinct and capacity for observation long before she found her calling as an artist. Her sister Eileen recalls how she originally picked up a camera to ward off kerb-crawlers and protect her younger siblings, before experimenting by taking pictures of her family and friends. She was quickly politicised by her surroundings and began to use her camera as a weapon, to document the injustice she witnessed and use her art to make people’s lives better.
I’m often asked whether the situation for artists like Tish from regional and working-class backgrounds has changed. The process of making our documentary coincided with the biggest downturn in living standards in recent memory, with soaring inflation compounding a crisis in our public services which have been slowly starved of funding over the last decade by the incumbent government. Conservative ideology in this period can be characterised at best as a distaste for intervention and at worst a relentless pursuit of profit over people. Can working-class art and artists survive in such an economy?