Small Town Inertia by Jim Mortram

Originally published on Photomonitor.co.uk

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Photographer Jim Mortram has been documenting his own small town of Dereham, Norfolk, since 2006 and has been a full-time carer for his mother for twenty years. His project about the effects of austerity on people who live in the town has now been published in the crowdfunded photobook Small Town Inertia.

A photo of Simon, who has epilepsy, shows him singing karaoke on his own in his front room; he is in shadow and seems very still. Tilney1, who has been in hospital for his mental health, is seen in rooms decorated with comic book and movie posters. The book is mostly portraits, all shot in black and white and there are very few scenes outside people’s homes. The variety and flow comes from the details that make up these small worlds.

Almost every full-page photo is accompanied by conversational words from the person photographed. There are stories about family and personal histories, about chronic illness and running out of money, about isolation and cruelty. The book opens with a series of hard-hitting texts on the political context of this hardship. Mortram calls the project a “firm rebuttal of damaging government welfare policies and their well-used rhetoric that ‘we are all in this together.’”

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The words and pictures are immensely sad, in particular some of the beautiful solo portraits of half-lit faces. But the book also shows endurance as lives develop and time passes. One photograph shows a man named David holding on to the belt of a woman’s coat in a supermarket. It is printed alongside his words explaining that he is blind and feels his situation has been made worse by government policies towards disabled people. Further into the book we see the two again and learn from David’s accompanying text that the woman is his mother Eugene: “she used to make it into town about once a week and I’d go with her and hold on to the belt of her coat, carry the shopping in my left hand so she did not have to push that weight in her trolley”. Twenty pages later, there is a photo taken in a hospital room with the curtains drawn, David’s back to the camera as leans over the bed. He says: “she had got malnourished because she had only been eating small amounts” and then describes the last conversation he had with his mum before she died. It is a heart-breaking, intimate moment which Mortram is there to witness from the doorway. This and other pictures show the time and care he has taken to get to know people and to create what he calls “a communal book”.

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As Lewis Bush writes, “Mortram brings to bear an understanding of the difficulties his subjects face which is uncommon in the often patronisingly paternalistic genre of ‘socially concerned’ documentary photography”. This is photography that does what other photography claims to do, without ever using the phrases ‘giving people a voice’ or ‘raising awareness of the issue’. In the last double page of the book Tilney1 looks straight at the camera, half out of the frame, coming towards us, and his words are: “It does bother me what people think of me. Don’t call me nuts, you should never call anyone nuts, it hurts.” After reading this compelling book, it is a call for compassion one can’t ignore.

In Brutal Presence

Originally published in Loupe magazine

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Nicola Muirhead’s In Brutal Presence is a documentary series on the Trellick Tower, a residential housing block in Notting Hill, West London, built in 1972 in the now much-maligned Brutalist style.The distinctive 31-storey tower block mostly houses council tenants in a very wealthy area of the capital. Talking about her work, Muirhead says, ‘I wanted the project to remind the public of the value of these social housing estates as an integral part of London's urban fabric. I set out to produce an intimate profle of Trellick Tower using portraits and interviews of its council flat tenants, to bring to the foreground the human element of these living, breathing communities and homes.’

She was first struck by the building’s appearance, and then went on to learn about its place in the community, photographing the tower both from the inside and outside. While Muirhead hones in on the details of the smooth concrete façade in some photographs, others are taken from a distance for a sense of scale. She also includes portraits of people in the varied colour palettes of their flats. The best of the portraits are intimate and alive, as in a triptych of 19-year-old Molly cutting her dad’s hair at the kitchen table, and Sue in her 18th foor flat in a colourful towel and jewellery, lit up by the blue glow of a tanning machine.

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Muirhead cites one of her main infuences as Dana Lixenberg, who won this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for her series Imperial Courts. Imperial Courts is named after a social housing development in southern Los Angeles, located in a neighbourhood that is known for its street gangs and rioting. Lixenberg’s project is made up of portraits of residents as well as audio and video clips to allow residents to speak for themselves. In Brutal Presence incorporates this idea, including written accounts from the Trellick Tower inhabitants. Their perspectives are varied but people have a strong awareness of the building’s history, the changes over time and outside perspectives and stereotypes. JP who has lived there for 20 years says: ‘When I frst moved into the area, it was referred to as “North Kensington the poor part of Kensington and Chelsea.” Now the estate agents refer to it as “Portobello Road and the budding atmosphere of Golborne Road.” How things have changed
since then...isn’t life a bitch? You go from being a tramp, to winning the lottery.’

The project has taken on a new poignancy after the fire at the twenty four storey Grenfell Tower, a short walk away in the same London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In Grenfell eighty people lost their lives; lives which were in many ways similar to the lives documented in Trellick Tower. Muirhead says that the Grenfell fire has motivated her to continue and expand the series. She wants to tell these
stories because she sees photography ‘as a collaborative and therapeutic practice.’