Tag Archives: photography

What’s The Catch? Before Daniel Meadows’ Free Photographic Omnibus there was his free photographic studio, Moss Side

The first version of the catalogue for the Archive of Daniel Meadows, photographer and social documentarist, is available here. Meadows is distinguished for his tour of England in the Free Photographic Omnibus, 1973-1974, amongst many other works. This was a project he returned to in the mid 1990s to rephotograph those he had met and taken pictures of around England in the 1970s, culminating in his series of National Portraits: Now & Then, which have been exhibited both at home and abroad.

The portraits and related material from Meadows’ archive, such as national and international press coverage, are currently on display for a special exhibition in Blackwell Hall, where admission is free and everybody is encouraged to come and see. But for now, let’s take a look at what drove (pun unintentional) Meadows to tour England in a double decker bus for fourteen months.

dirt, smoke, rain and people

Meadows was born and raised in Great Washbourne, Gloucestershire, and although his time spent as a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic did not negate his appreciation of where he came from, it is clear that Meadows revelled in instilling his independence and resourcefulness in new environments. In January 1972 he rented a dilapidated barber’s shop in Greame Street, Moss Side and converted it into a photographic studio in which any local people who wandered in could have their picture taken, free of charge.

In a typescript, arranged with prints interspersed from his studio at Greame Street, titled ‘What’s The Catch?’, Meadows writes

‘Before coming to Manchester I had always lived in the most isolated and luscious countryside that this country had to offer. Moss Side Manchester is the extreme opposite, and yet, far from yearning for the sight of a cow or the smell of freshly-mown hay, I have come to love it for what it is; dirt, smoke, rain and people.’

On the next page, referencing the coming and going of the people, he writes

‘This is what I particularly like about the shop. As an [sic] habitual photographer of street life I am used to a constantly changing environment . A shop environment, then, seems to be contrary to the candid picture-making of the street. The opposite is true; the shop is merely an extension of the street and the people come in and go out in the same way as they walk the paving stones.’

(MS. Meadows 46, folder 1, ‘What’s The Catch?’)

Daniel Meadows outside his free photographic shop on Greame Street, with Moss Side residents, 1972.
MS. Meadows 46, folder 2. [photographer unknown]

‘I feel that, as a photographer who lives in the area, it is my job to make a record of a way of life which is to be destroyed’

Rather than Meadows actively seeking out photographic subjects for the Greame Street studio, he would take photographs of anybody and everybody who asked.  This is a significant characteristic Meadows would retain throughout the tour of the Free Photographic Omnibus. Through the nights of the tour, Meadows would develop the film and produce two copies of the portrait: one of these copies was always given to the person photographed.

As a student, Meadows’ sincere interest in the people and their everyday lives resonates, and his integrity is there in black and white. Meadows writes in July 1972 that

‘The reason for making photographic portraits of the inhabitants of Moss Side is that, with the demolition of the terraced houses, the population will be dispersed since many of the tenants will not be able to afford the increase in rent […] More than just the Victorian Terraces will go: a close knit community will be split up. I feel that, as a photographer who lives in the area, it is my job to make a record of a way of life which is to be destroyed.’

He goes on to write that Moss Side

‘[…] is, however, not alone in it’s plight among places where the quality of life is threatened by necessity for social change […] Over-population and environmental pollution are the poisons of the age and never before has man been forced into the situation of having to decide what kind of a future he wants for himself and his children. […] The free photographic studio was a pilot scheme for a much larger undertaking, namely to purchase a reconditioned second hand double decker bus for around £250 and travel up and down the length of the country making a record of the quality of life in England in 1973-1974.’

(MS. Meadows 50, folder 1, a circular entitled ‘Details of proposal’ distributed for help with sponsorship for the bus, July 1972)

Daniel Meadows standing in front of his newly purchased (second hand!) Bus on 24 July 1973
MS. Meadows 54. [photographer unknown]

A year later, on 24 July 1973, Meadows purchased the second hand double decker bus from Nottingham, and the journey of the Free Photographic Omnibus’ would begin.

 

 

A sympathy for strangers: Oxfam and the history of humanitarianism

On Tuesday 31st October the Oxfam Archive Assistants attended a lecture at St Antony’s College by Princeton University’s Professor Jeremy Adelman, entitled Towards a Global History of Humanitarianism. Professor Adelman’s focus was primarily the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his narrative had implications for the way we might view contemporary humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam.

 

Historians have not always been kind in their assessments of international humanitarianism. Alex de Waal was broadly critical of the role such agencies have played when dealing with famine on the African continent: by supplying aid externally, he argues, they inadvertently undermine the democratic accountability of African governments, disincentivizing humanitarian intervention or crisis prevention as a way of preserving political power.[1] To an extent, Adelman spoke in a similar vein: abolitionists may have helped stimulate the rise of humanitarianism in the nineteenth century but colonial penetration itself was often justified in terms of humanitarian intervention, where the white settler was morally and ethically obliged to ‘civilize’ the unsophisticated ‘native’. Humanitarian discourse, Adelman argued, is by its nature racialized, and it invariably reinforces the self-image of Western nations as occupying the apex of a civilizational hierarchy.

 

This might seem somewhat damning of all Oxfam does and stands for. However, Adelman also spoke of a ‘sympathy for strangers’ which grew out of increasing global connectedness and integration as telegraph cables, railways and steamships curtailed the spatial and intellectual distances between disparate peoples. The camera was, according to Adelman, a fundamental technological innovation in this respect and the relationship between photography and humanitarianism has in many ways been central to the development of charities like Oxfam. Borrowing from Susan Sontag, Adelman suggested that ‘moral witnesses’ – i.e., photographers – record public memories of pain, creating a connection between the ‘victim’ – the subject of the photograph – and the viewer.

 

In the 19th century missionaries armed themselves with Kodak cameras, and by producing lantern slide shows of their experiences in foreign climes hoped to raise money for future missionary work. But in the Congo Free State, rendered a personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium in 1885, missionaries began to use their cameras to record atrocities committed against Congolese rubber plantation workers. In the face of international scrutiny – which admittedly was somewhat more self-interested than compassionate – King Leopold was forced to cede Congo as a personal asset. It could certainly be argued that such photographs exploited the pain of others, titillating public interest at home without any true empathy for or understanding of the Congolese people. According to Susan Sontag, the ‘knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist’.[2]

 

 

But the power of the photograph to reinforce moral or empathetic feeling can be – and has been – used for the genuine betterment of others. From 1957 to the early 1960s Oxfam sent simple Christmas ‘appeal’ cards to its donors, featuring a simple ‘thank you’ message and photographs of individuals helped by the charity. A card from 1958 showed a huge-eyed little girl, sitting wrapped in a coat and woollen socks with a spoon stuck into a beaker of food. The caption read ‘This little Greek girl was found as a baby hungry and dying… Now she is properly fed… because Oxfam sends food, and years ago was able to plant black-currant bushes in her village which are now bearing fruit.’ This photograph does not simply broadcast the pain of strangers. It broadcasts hope, and promises resolution through charitable action. While a healthy scepticism and constructive interrogation of the conduct of international agencies is to be encouraged, we should be careful not to overlook and devalue the charitable efforts inspired by genuine ‘sympathy for strangers’.

[1] Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (1997)

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (1973)