SOCIETY

Taking pictures that mean something: everyday life in Salford

 “That’s all that’s left of my son.” 

“David’s boy has memories of having a good dad, because he was a good dad. But she missed out on that. So even though I say one thing, the other thing contradicts that thing…”

This is Jane, a participant in a new study of Everyday Life in Salford, talking about the death of her son David at the age of 26 and its effects on her grandchildren. In a sentence she encapsulates the texture of daily life as complex, contradictory and highly personalized—not ground-breaking new evidence in itself but something that represents a major challenge for locating the everyday as a key site of social transformation.

How do we connect people’s everyday lives with wider structural inequalities in order to create alternatives? We cannot hope for a project of sustainable radical democracy to suddenly emerge from on high, so we must make changes in our everyday lives in order to build a different approach over time.

As Edgar Pieterse notes in his writing on “radical incrementalism,” social activism should aim for improvements in people’s immediate circumstances, but it should also lay the foundations for deeper changes in the future. In that sense, everyday life becomes a building block for transformation.

Understanding this process requires approaches that reveal these connections in order to develop an understanding that’s grounded in people’s daily lives, and that can generate collective knowledge that can be drawn on to support further action. And in terms of research, this requires methods that can uncover the complexity of everyday life while at the same time contributing towards a more systemic understanding of social inequalities.

This was the basis of the Social Action and Research Foundation’s latest project, through which we supported six people to represent their own lives through photography, storytelling and co-produced info-graphics. Each participant took photographs that reflected their sources of everyday support and struggles, and then shared the story behind their photographs in a supportive environment. As one participant said, “By just taking pictures that mean something to you, a meaningful story emerges.”

Through workshops and discussions held over a period of months, the book reveals some of the intricacies of the authors’ lives. Public policy, the mainstream media and social science research often reduce the complexity and individuality of people in an attempt to make sense of society or promote a particular perspective. This can lead to negative stereotypes that are rooted in misrepresentation. It can also neglect the context in which people are living, individualising blame for the effects of structural inequalities and ignoring the particular life-histories that shape people’s lives.

At worst, this can lead to the stigmatisation of working class communities which is then used to generate consent for policies that create significant social harm. Through our work we seek to show how helping these communities to represent themselves can produce a more nuanced picture that reflects people’s real lived experiences. These pictures can then be used to counter the dominant narratives and generate knowledge that supports social action.

This is why the book begins with each person’s story. It’s important to recognise people’s individuality: their pain, worries and the different facets that bring life meaning. As Christine, one of the authors said, “You can be sat next to someone anywhere and you have got no idea what they go through in their life.”  We can all be too quick to judge people. Being a little more thoughtful about others is something that everyone can do. Small changes that seem mundane can help to transform social relations, creating new and more understanding ways of life.

The textures of everyday experience include all that is tangled up between the past and the future, involving aspects that appear insignificant but which reflect the wider realities of how we live. In order to find out more about people’s everyday lives, we must therefore take into account all the different elements that shape their experience.

Jane, for example, had recently lost her son David in a tragic accident and her grief has been understandably profound. She took a photograph of her son’s collections (reproduced above), and told us: “That’s all that is left of my son, a twenty six year old man.” This appears to be an all-encompassing view, but Jane is a positive, funny and supportive woman with many different elements to her life. The next photograph that Jane selected was of her son’s baby girl, a living embodiment of David who brings the whole family support and solace. She continued:

“I have got that many photos of all the kids. That is David’s daughter; she was only six weeks old when he went. And in some ways it is gonna be easier for her than his five year old because he actually knew him and remembers him. She will grow up without a dad and it will be more common place for her. I am not saying she won’t get upset, of course she will get upset, especially when she is on her own in her own bed as she gets older, but sometimes you never miss what you never had. But in other ways, David’s boy has memories of having a good dad, because he was a good dad. But she missed out on that. So even though I say one thing, the other thing contradicts that thing…”

We also considered how personal testimonies reflect shared themes, and the ways in which they relate to wider social issues that affect the whole community. We can see these themes in the structures of support that were identified through photography and storytelling in the form of family, friends, access to services and feeling valued. Strong relationships, although sometimes difficult to navigate in themselves, provide a vital element of community support that helps people to resist.

Clear patterns emerged in terms of the things that created struggles or anxieties, like welfare ‘reform,’ poor physical and mental health, cuts to services, and insecure work. The participants discussed statistics that reflected the problems their communities were facing, and then directed our graphic designer to produce the imagery of being ‘squeezed by government.’ As one participant noted, the Department for Work and Pensions has “governed my life and caused me so much financial ruin and debt because of sanctions.’’

Everyday Life in Salford shows the critical importance of family and social connections to well-being. It also reveals how—together with government decisions that punish people on low incomes—the structure of the economy that creates low-paid and insecure work puts intense pressure on these protective structures.

The politics of poverty in the UK construct poverty not as the result of structural conditions, but of individual failures and poor choices. This enables social acquiescence to austerity and the economic, social and political marginalisation of many communities. We can see this in the UK Government’s claim that the current measurement of child poverty—defined as 60 per cent of median income—is “deeply flawed,” and that a better test would be to consider what they propose to be the “root causes of poverty, including family breakdown, debt and addiction.”

The identification of the so-called five “pathways to poverty” reverses social causation, identifying the symptoms of poverty as the cause. The Tavistock Institute, for example, has released a great deal of evidence that shows how the stress of living in poverty brings added risks of relationship problems and breakdown—a direct challenge to the government’s position.

In order to challenge the dominant politics of poverty, we need to support communities in representing their everyday lives in ways that recognise the context in which people are struggling to get by—not by denying collective social histories.

Participatory research enables people to reflect on how to make positive changes in their lives. Of course Everyday Life in Salford and other similar projects won’t create social transformation in and of themselves, but they can generate knowledge that contributes towards these processes. In that way, daily struggles can be connected to broader social activism.

If we are to create a more equal society, then more consideration needs to be given to the practices and policies that lead to social harm. We must also support local strengths in a way that can lead to improvements in communities. By paying closer attention to patterns of support and struggle that emerge from everyday experience, we can collectively create and support the policies, projects and actions that can make a lasting difference in people’s lives:  social transformation as a joint endeavour that unites the personal with the political.

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