Energised by the great upswell of social activism in the late 1960s, Nick Hedges became convinced that photographers should work on projects to support the reformation and improvement of society. He was in his final year of a photography course at Birmingham College of Art, documenting people surviving in abject poverty and dire housing in Birmingham.
A chance meeting with the then-director of Shelter while setting up an exhibition of his work at the Birmingham Housing Trust in 1968 saw him working with the housing and homelessness charity for several years. “In everyone’s lives, chance plays a large part,” he says.
Hedges travelled the UK, visiting cities including Glasgow, Salford, Bradford, Liverpool and Newcastle, and captured astonishing scenes of families negotiating life in slums, framed by the rubble of condemned neighbouring buildings, ill health and destitution.
He photographed sensitively, sometimes crouching in corners to make himself as small as possible, and depicted tenderness, love and bonds that no situation could break. As time went on, he witnessed changes as towns were redeveloped and tower blocks went up – what he describes as a dreadful mistake of the 1970s. The captivating and thought-provoking images formed a series called Make Life Worth Living.
I spoke to Hedges about his work and how the appalling living conditions he documented back then compare to today’s housing emergency.
VICE: What shocked you most while photographing the project?
Nick Hedges: It was the sense of powerlessness that people felt. The tenants and residents of these dreadful housing conditions were literally trapped. They’d explored every avenue and still couldn’t escape. People would show you notes from doctors, letters saying that the health conditions suffered, whether it was a child or an adult, were entirely due to the housing. There were numerous attempts to get put on housing lists, and they were always rejected because there was a huge shortage of social housing and decent rented accommodation. When you’re trapped like that and can’t see a way out, however resilient you are, it wears you down – it has a psychological effect on you.
Did you ever witness people being so worn down that they had no fight left?
The extraordinary thing was how resilient people were. You would find people living in desperate circumstances, and their priority was to feed their children, look after them, make them feel secure and express love for them. That sort of enabled them to continue staying in what were dreadful conditions. It sounds as if I’m romanticising, but I’m not.
I remember meeting a family in Birmingham when I was a student. Greta was two years younger than me and had two children. I couldn’t believe how mature she was compared to me. I looked at myself and thought, ‘You couldn’t deal with this.’ And yet, this woman was able to be cheerful and wonderfully look after her kids. It was very a humbling experience.
Is there one event or scene that sticks in your mind above all else?
There isn’t one thing, because it would be wrong to single out one particular family. But I remember meeting Mrs Moran in Newcastle and feeling how desperate her situation was. She was a Catholic, and on the wall of her flat she had three images. That’s all she had.
One was a Jesuit poster of Christ, one was an elaborately framed little picture of a dog – it was a pet dog that had died – and the other was one of those school photographs, rather bland, where the child sits against a wall and the picture is taken. I looked at it and thought, ‘I wonder why that one is there.’ I asked her, and she said she had died ten years ago; it was her daughter. Seeing that little icon, this set of three pictures, makes you realise what people live with. And that moved me tremendously.
It’s almost 50 years since that project. Do you ever still think about those people?
When Shelter had its 50th anniversary a few years ago, someone at the charity contacted some of the children who appeared in photographs, and I met up with people I’d photographed them when they were six or seven. They were in their fifties [when we met again]. A woman in Glasgow remembered me as this bearded, long-haired weirdo.
I remember talking to a guy who had come down from Manchester for a St Martin-in-the-Fields memorial service, and he remembered me photographing him. He turned to me and said, “We didn’t think of ourselves as living in poverty. We didn’t understand that we were deprived. And it’s only when we grew up that we started to realise the differences. Our childhoods were, by and large, like everyone else’s.” That was illuminating.
Most people had relatively successful lives. They lifted themselves out of their beginnings. But it’d be wrong to conclude that, because what about the hundreds of thousands of families you don’t know about? I only met the ones that survived.
You continued to work with Shelter in the years that followed. Was there a big contrast between Scotland and the rest of the UK?
My first visit to Glasgow was in 1969, and I was utterly shocked by the size of the problem the city was facing. In large parts of it, the Gorbals, Maryhill, there were devastating tenement blocks, slums.
Elsewhere, there were problems with inadequate council housing and social housing, or private landlords in the rented sector. In places like Notting Hill and parts of Liverpool, it was the multi-lets and unscrupulous landlords. In other areas, there was a shortage of social housing caused by the postponement of redevelopment caused by the Second World War.
As time went on, how did you notice social housing changing?
What has changed is that the material property and the gross dereliction of the housing that existed in the late-60s and early-70s have mostly disappeared. The appearance of poverty has changed, but the pressures on people are exactly the same. You’ve got people living in totally inadequate housing, but poverty doesn’t always show in a photograph. It must be explained. The overcrowding, the insecurity, the exorbitant rents that people are paying, the fact that you don’t know whether you'll be able to live here for another week or a month, and then where do we go? All those things are hidden. They don’t reveal themselves to the camera.
Can you draw comparisons between what you saw during “Make Life Worth Living” and areas of the UK today?
Some of the housing was so appalling and so derelict, you wouldn’t see it like that today. The housing stock was simply so old, tired and worn out. The problems that exist today are as bad as they were when I was taking pictures, but they manifest themselves differently.
How can we fix this?
What you must remember is that Shelter was, and is today, a dedicated group of individuals who had come together to try to help cure a problem. It’s that kind of cooperation and joint endeavour that enables all charities and organisations to work. It’s never the individual. It’s the group.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See more photos below.