Photography of Protest and Community : In Conversation with Noni Stacey

Ahead of the release of the much anticipated 'Photography of Protest and Community: The Radical Collectives of the 1970s' on 12th October, author Noni Stacey talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the radical collectives of the 1970s and the social relevance of their work for us today. Noni Stacey discusses the political and artistic aims of the collectives, the democratisation of knowledge they enabled, and the collectives’ redefinition of ‘exhibitions’, as well as tackling questions of responsibility and agency for photographer and subject… 


MRG: What was the personal inspiration for writing this book?


NS: I always think about the suffragettes, as my family on my mother’s side were campaigners, with my great grandfather writing for The Suffragette and my grandmother a young protestor in the Women’s Social and Political Union in Chiswick. Other inspirations in my life stem from my brush with life in a squat (cold and damp) in the early 1980s and working with people who had been instrumental in the Communist University of London in the 1970s. This was a pluralist and extensive education programme for anyone who wanted to attend – an excellent example of the democratisation of knowledge.


Workers assembling on an engine line, Luton, in the book Carworker, with text by Sarah Cox, photograph by Robert Golden.
Reproduced in Photography of Protest and Community by Noni Stacey, 2020.



MRG: The question at the heart of your book is, ‘Who is it for?’ – an echo of the question posed in the first issue of Camerawork in 1976. Do you think that the social and cultural ‘challenge’ that this represents, is closer to being met today with the increasing democratisation of the media through social platforms and the ubiquity of photographic technology?


NS: In the 1970s the work and photographs that came out of these collectives constituted a sustained political challenge. Today, there is much talk of social and cultural challenge – yet this is an anodyne and in many ways amorphous space. The collectives were immersed in the political events of the day – around equality in terms of gender, race, work and housing. The exhibitions and publications that came out of the collectives bristled with political data, sociological analysis and evoked and emulated the protests of the Civil Rights Movement, the protests on American involvement in the Vietnam War and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Moreover, the network of collectives that I have written about challenged institutional structures, in particular the gallery network. Now the work of the collectives is governed by funding sources – anathema to overt political discourse – and entry into the gallery network, one of the most conservative labour structures in existence today. Often curators, tenured academics, and cultural producers have a job for life – the latter buoyed by funding which is open to few. This is in no way reflective of the general workforce on short or zero hours contracts, or those who are out of work with no prospect of re-entering the workforce any time soon.

The idea that the camera phone is accessible to all – or computers available to everyone – is a sop. If you take a photograph and put it on social media – who will look at it? What agency does this producer really have? And I don’t think that there is greater democratisation of the media today – when you see that the all-powerful corporations that own social media harvest photographs and data for economic gain – where is the democracy in that? Major newspapers and television news stations in the UK are still owned by media dynasties with their own narrow political agenda.


Half Moon Photography Workshop jumble sale in Morpeth School, Bethnal Green, 11 March 1979. Photograph by David Gordon.
Reproduced in Photography of Protest and Community by Noni Stacey, 2020.


MRG: You describe your research for the book as a process of discovery because of the personal nature of image archives, and the re-emerging narratives they represent. Do you think that this ‘personal-is-political’ nature of the photography is what drives the recent upturn in study of this area?


NS: I think the polemical nature of the photographs and texts that have emerged from the 1970s interests some for the political challenge they represent, while for others the strategies employed to reflect people’s lives back to them in their locality, with temporary and ephemeral exhibitions and tape slide showings, enthral people who seek to make their voice heard. What is striking is that photographers and artists or anyone who has not been to art school and doesn’t call themselves an artist, can now take photographs, write a text and show work. I saw one ‘exhibition’ recently, hung on a clothes line in a garden of Zeno Watson’s portraits of neighbours taken during the pandemic lockdown. Exhibitions don’t have to be expensive, framed, or indoors.


MRG: The questions of inclusion and exclusion raised by the movements addressed in your book, seem to be as prevalent as ever in today’s discussions within the arts sector and within political debate more broadly. Do you think that the Collectives of the 70s, and their exhibitions and publications, set a good precedent for the democratisation of the arts institution? Of the gallery or museum space?


NS: The collectives sought to bring people who were not heard, and were not involved in their representation in photographs, into the picture. They did this in a more inclusive way, by reflecting the photographs that they took back to the community. However, the photographers in the collectives that I have written about are white and, in the main, university educated. To put this in context, the majority of those working in cultural institutions, or working in art history departments in the 1970s, were white. The shame is that this is still the case. Art schools are more diverse in terms of colour. So, while the photographs in this book and from these collectives shows a multi-racial society, those writing about the images or curating contemporary exhibitions around this work, are still in the main white. The energy and multi-faceted nature of the Black Lives Matter movement presents a model for change with its non-hierarchical, fluid and inclusive model and in its urgent call for addressing inequality in education, arts, housing and work. In order for this to happen in the cultural world, those in power need to relinquish power. Wait and see.


Exhibition panel from Women and Work, Hackney Town Hall, 1975 by the Hackney Flashers.
Reproduced in Photography of Protest and Community by Noni Stacey, 2020.


MRG: One of the features of the collectives is the desire to show exhibitions and distribute polemical material, outside of the gallery. Why was this and is this still important for politically-engaged artists to do?


NS: Most people do not go to galleries. In the 1970s, the galleries and museums were rarefied spaces. Think about it, if these cultural spaces were disinclined to include the work of the collectives, whose members were articulate, ambitious and punchy – how could anyone outside of that world find a foothold?  The Institute of Contemporary Art in London was prominent in the dissemination of ideas around art, photography and politics in the 1970s and it still is – though all galleries and museums now speak of community engagement and inclusion, but often it is the funding model and institutional links that determine the programme around the work.

The multitude of doors that need to be opened before any photographer or artist can find a place in the gallery preclude widespread inclusion. This is where the publish-from-scratch strategies and touring of temporary, laminated exhibitions into any space that would have them, provide an inspiration. Yet, today’s social media – sold as a democratic pathway – calls for canny and eye-catching techniques to bring work to people’s attention – and, more importantly, hold that attention. Social media is also a creature that needs to be abated and fed morsels of data regularly. This requires time and energy, computer literacy, a computer and feedback.



MRG: How important was the control over the use of images to the Collectives you study in the book? Is the lack of control over the proliferation of images something to be embraced or counteracted when it involves a social, political message?


NS: Control over the production, publication and distribution and dissemination of the photographs and textual material was all important to the collectives. The same heated arguments about how a photograph is taken, consent, publication, and the role of the editor and picture editor persist – this has certainly been the case with photographs taken during Black Lives Matter protests. But, there is a significant difference: the collectives of the 70s challenged institutional structures; the BLM movement seeks a reconfiguration of institutions, a renegotiation of power structures within these museums and galleries, publications and media organisations, to reflect diversity. This has yet to happen.


'Paddington by the Sea’ Community Festival, the Factory, West London, 1978. Photograph by Philip Wolmuth.
Reproduced in Photography of Protest and Community by Noni Stacey, 2020.


MRG: I was intrigued by the contrast you draw between Bill Brandt’s photo-story about London’s docklands, produced for Lilliput magazine in 1946, and Exit Photography Group’s Down Wapping, and the debate around the interest of the individual taking a picture as opposed to the interest of the Collective taking a picture.

Do you think that the Collectives achieved the reality of 'a more balanced vision and greater objectivity', as claimed by Exit Photography in a letter to one of its funders, the Gulbenkian Foundation?


NS: I don’t know if I would go that far, not least because the exhibitions and publications were political documents – but it is true to say that the collective editing sessions and lengthy discussions about how a project would be shaped and which photographs would be used, ensured that all voices were heard, with the caveat that some voices were louder than others. I think that the phrase used suggests that sometimes, in the solicitation of funding, certain words were used to masque the political nature of the projects. 

I don’t think it’s a matter of pitting an individual photographer against a collective – it all depends on the outlook of the photographer, whether working alone or in a collective. What the collectives worked against was what they termed the ‘parachuting in’ of a photographer to a place, to take photographs without interacting with the subjects of the photographs, or those who lived there. In photojournalism there was often no contact in that way; the photographs were developed and then selected by a picture editor. This was a process of detachment. The writer worked separately and had their work edited by sub-editors. This is a clear division of labour. The collectives traversed these boundaries: not only did they often write texts or gather contextual material themselves from a range of publications and organisations, they also selected the photographs and were involved in the layout of the exhibition and publications.



MRG: A recurring issue that you tackle in relation to several of the collectives is the question of ‘Gaze’ (and in particular the problems of the subjects’ potential suspicion and resentment of the intrusion of photographers). How were the photographers able to document without aestheticising suffering?


NS: This is a key point. The exhibitions and publications that came out of the collectives on the surface repeated the well-known trope in photography, of one group looking at another. Too often the subjects were seen as abject, with no agency around the publication of the photograph. The collectives sought to overturn this power imbalance by making repeated visits to the communities that they were photographing; and frequently by distributing prints and exhibiting prints – as Exit did – on street railings, or in a factory, polytechnic, library or laundrette. The collectives made themselves known – and a consequence of doing so meant a swift rebuke should their approach – or the photograph – cause a stir. Photographs of bad housing, exploitative work conditions, the misery of unemployment all show one group looking at another, but text and political intent surrounding the image make the difference.


Workshop poster for the Hackney Flashers, illustration by Christine Roche.
Reproduced in Photography of Protest and Community by Noni Stacey, 2020.


MRG: In your focus on Camerawork, the idea of ‘Demystifying and democratising photography’ comes to the fore, surrounding Victor Burgin’s article. Could the Collectives’ publications/exhibitions and their call for change be considered the first, or proto-'social media'?


NS: To my mind the proto social media is the extraordinary work started by the countercultural publications and ground-breaking collectives of the 1960s, and embraced by the collectives in the 1970s around the publication and distribution of information. I think of the painstaking work that went into the books that I have in my archive, such as Alternative England and Wales and Alternative London. These are highly-detailed directories, containing diagrams, maps and most importantly, addresses and phone numbers, so that people had access to information to change their lives. There was no internet, no computers, no mobile phones, so these directories, and many other texts, including the data and statistics published by the 1970s collectives, were a lifeline for many. Squatting, electrical wiring, legal advice, the law (and how to defend yourself in the face of police aggression), how to have a baby at home, or how to set up a playgroup: it’s all there in Alternative England and Wales. The collectives built on this democratisation of knowledge.



Noni Stacey's Photography of Protest and Community will be released on 12th October and is available for pre-order from our website HERE.

Hardcover • 208 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
20 colour illustrations and 92 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224094 • Publication: October 12, 2020



While you're here, take a look at our catalogue of recent and upcoming books HERE.