Can working-class art and artists survive in an economy driven by the relentless pursuit of profit?

Paul Sng’s new film Tish looks at the legacy of Newcastle-born social documentary photographer Tish Murtha. To coincide with the film’s release, its producer, North East-based Jen Corcoran, reflects on the unbroken thread of austerity and dispossession endured by both Murtha herself and generations of working-class artists since. As Corcoran considers, the injustices faced – and documented – by Murtha, which throttled her ability to make work and ultimately contributed to her death, were neither specific to her or the time in which she worked, but a seam which runs to the heart of British society then and now.

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?

A Policy and Evidence Centre report published in 2020 documented widespread and persistent class imbalances in the creative industries. Research showed that people from high socio-economic backgrounds are twice as likely to find a role in a creative occupation as those from a working-class background, who make up only 26% of the creative workforce. This class-based exclusion intersects with gender, disability, race and place: women and people from ethnic minority or regional backgrounds face multiple disadvantages. These more privileged voices dominate key creative roles, shaping what we read on the page and see on our screens, and how we perceive ourselves.

The independent film industry in the UK is facing a particular crisis moment. The sector has been transformed by the domination of algorithm-based streaming services and home entertainment, killing cinema revenues which in turn drives down budgets. A reliance on incoming production from the US has provided a temporary gloss of success even while homegrown talent is systematically devalued and defunded, a situation exposed by the recent strikes by the Writers’ Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists which left crew and temporary workers in the UK suddenly out of work with national production unable to fill the gap. 

Government policy over the past 13 years has failed to meet these challenges and in many cases has exacerbated them. Massive cuts to arts organisations have affected their ability to properly meet the crisis and support the industry. Key support schemes such as the BFI Vision Award, which provided early career film-makers with the financial means to develop a slate of projects and secure a future for their business, have been quietly shuttered. The Global Screen Fund – hastily organised in the wake of Brexit to fill the gap left by pan-European funding schemes – was narrowly targeted at established companies and profit-making or commercial films that could offer a swift return on investment, leaving artistic film-making unsupported. Paid and publicly advertised internships (such as the Film London Company Placement Scheme which kickstarted my career in 2009, allowing me to live and work in the capital) have been defunded and no longer exist. This leaves unpaid labour the most likely route into the industry, excluding working-class creatives and allowing the industry’s characteristic nepotism to continue unchallenged.

With development funding in short supply, creatives must work for free for several years to get their projects off the ground and fight for ever-dwindling pots of production money. As commercial pressures force budgets lower, reduced fees fail to offer a living wage. Burnout is rife with working-class professionals needing to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet. Making art of any description requires time and energy to think, explore, create, fail, rework and deliver. This is not possible when financial pressures dominate. What viewpoints are lost when working-class voices are excluded from storytelling?

As Tish’s contemporary, the late photographer Mik Critchlow, comments in the film, “If you want to photograph the tribe, you’ve got to be part of the tribe.” I believe it is paramount that people from within a community are involved in telling its story. Tish gave copies of her pictures to people in them to share in their representation.Her work was motivated not by voyeurism but by a desire to use her art as a tool for change, a record of injustice, and a celebration of life. With her camera, Tish wanted to give working-class lives a value, particularly those who may otherwise have been overlooked or looked down upon by wider society.

There is a special quality to a working-class lens, however, beyond our responsibility to our own communities. It’s a viewpoint and a set of values that prioritises authenticity, fairness, collaboration and empathy. It’s an attitude that we as film-makers shared in the making of our documentary, working directly and in full collaboration with Tish’s family to give them agency in how her story was told. This lens was also present in Tish’s photographs of Soho nightlife, which she co-created with the community she depicted. The respect Tish had for her subjects is clear: the images are imbued with a power, a presence and ownership of their space. What other stories might she have gone on to tell under different circumstances?

Tish was shaped by her working-class background: her experiences gave her work an insight and humanity that others lacked. It also gave her a stubbornness and an independent streak that suited her for the fight. She made her way through sheer force of will and became a fierce beacon for marginalised communities.

However, she was held back and eventually brought down by those same ‘barbaric forces’ in society that she wrote about in her 1980 essay on Thatcher’s Youth Unemployment programme: the closed doors of the art world, dominated by middle-class decision-makers (“Is it gritty enough? Is it modern?”) and the need to work for a living. Her work, which depended on an investment of time, failed to reach the attention of public funders. In the early 2000s she was sent to work in a meat processing plant through a Blairite Right to Work scheme, even while she was unable to buy the chemicals she needed to develop her images. She died of a brain aneurysm in 2013, afraid she would be sanctioned for failing to turn up to her appointment with the Department for Work and Pensions.

In 1976, a 20 year-old Tish was persuaded by her local college lecturer to apply to the newly-formed School of Documentary Photography at the University of Wales with an education grant to support her attendance. When asked by course founder, Magnum photographer David Hurn, why she wanted to apply, Tish said “I want to take photos of policemen kicking kids”. He replied, “You’re in”.

Today, the 100% abolition of public funding for arts and humanities degrees in favour of courses that directly serve the labour market – alongside the massive rise in tuition fees – cuts off aspiration at the root and will exclude working-class talent for a generation. Meanwhile our devalued creative industries are headed for market failure, exacerbated by Conservative policy making, with the cost borne on the shoulders of individuals least able to cope. This is vandalism on a grand scale. ♣︎

Tish is on general release in cinemas across the UK now. 

Main image: Tish Murtha, Karen On Overturned Chair, from Youth Unemployment, 1981. © Ella Murtha. All rights reserved.

About the author

Jen Corcoran founded Freya Films in 2019 to develop stories that challenge audiences and have the ability to stir deep emotion and empathy across cultural and language barriers. Based in the North East, her aim is to seek out projects with intelligence and integrity that represent her passions and principles. Jen’s breakthrough feature Nascondino (Hide & Seek) was directed by Victoria Fiore. It premièred in the Grierson Documentary Competition at London Film Festival 2021 and the DOX:AWARD Competition at CPH:DOX 2022. The film was nominated for four awards at the British Independent Film Awards 2022 including Best Documentary.

As former Head of Film at boutique production company My Accomplice, Jen oversaw a factual slate including Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams, 2018 (directed by Mat Whitecross) and Oliver Murray’s The Quiet One, 2019. Jen also delivered UK production services for The Great Hack, 2019, directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujam. Jen’s short-form work has platformed at Sheffield DocFest, BFI Flare and London Short Film Festival among others.

Jen developed and managed award-winning regional development programme Tees Valley Screen in 2019-20 with North East Screen and the European Regional Development Fund.  As a writer and programmer she has curated film programmes for London Short Film Festival, Synthesis Festival (Kaliningrad) and Cine North and lectures at Teesside University (MA Producing).

Jen is a member of BAFTA and has participated in professional development labs internationally, including Rotterdam Lab 2021, BFI Network x BAFTA Mentorship Programme 2020, BFI Network@LFF 2019 and Sheffield Doc/Fest Future Producer 2015. She also took part in the steering group for BAFTA’s Diversity Review in 2020.

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