Paul Reas spent much of the 1980s and early-90s photographing class and culture in Britain – scenes that will be totally unrecognisable to anyone born after the advent of Netflix and Predator drones. He cast a satirical eye on the Thatcher era, when old industry and new industry were butting heads and consumerism was tightening its grip on working class communities.
In his photos, he reveals a burgeoning world of supermarkets, retail parks and, more bizarrely, interactive industrial museums. It's a critique, yet he captures this world's inhabitants with warmth and compassion, refusing to play into bleak media representations of "problem" communities.
Reas' new book, Fables of Faubus, spans 30 years of his career and lassos different series together. I called the Bradford-born photographer to learn more about what that 1980s consumer boom looked like, how his working class upbringing shaped his outlook, and what it was like to be both an outsider and insider in his photographic approach.
VICE: You grew up on the notorious Buttershaw estate, the setting of Andrea Dunbar's play Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Did that upbringing shape your work around the Penrhys estate in South Wales?
Paul Reas: It shaped everything. It defines who I am, as I suppose everyone's upbringing and background does. As a photographer, I think it enabled me to move between worlds: as I made more work and became more middle class as a result of the successes that I'd had, I was moving in different social circles. But I like to think I had some kind of empathy and insight into the lives of the people I was trying to work with – which I possibly wouldn't have had without that upbringing.
What did you want to capture on the Penrhys estate?
It's very similar to where I grew up – similar in the sense that, outwardly, it had a lot of bad press, it was perceived in a particular way. And while some of that was true, I was also aware that, like on Buttershaw, there were decent families trying to do the best that they could. So I tried to capture that. There are pictures that show some of the extreme living conditions that people were subjected to. There's also hopefully some pictures that are warmer and more human.
The estate was originally built to house coal miners, and was later used by the council as a "dumping ground" for "problem" families. Did you want your photos to have a political punch in regard to that?
Political with a small p. I was aware of how it had been represented by the media, and wanting to not support that point of view. Not to ignore it, because some of it was based on realities, but also to try and show another side of it.
The shot of the boy in the hoody feels like the perfect picture of disillusioned youth. Is that how you see it now?
It's how I saw it then and now. I teach photography, and I frequently say to my students: what we're doing as photographers, ultimately, is photographing our own lives and experiences. It's a reflection of who we are, regardless of who's in front of the camera. So with the picture of that small boy, I’m conscious that it's a reflection of me and how I felt growing up on Buttershaw.
One interesting thing about the project is that you didn’t dive straight into the reportage; first, you gained the community's trust through establishing 'The Free Studio' in the estate's shopping precinct.
I organised a whole series of portraits as a way of introducing myself to the community. I stuck up a white sheet in the undercover shopping centre, I fly-posted around the estate, inviting people for a free portrait. People would turn up and I'd photograph them. Then, a couple of days later, I'd deliver the pictures back to them. It was a way of me getting to know them, and them getting to know me – and hopefully trust me.
Your work is partly a critique of British class and culture, but there's also this warmth and compassion in the representation of working class communities. Do you view it both ways?
I definitely do. Because when people were making that kind of work in the 80s, there was a lot of criticism that came with it. People thought, because it was a bit tough to look at and quite subjective, people in documentary circles thought that people like me or Martin Parr were being cruel in some way. But I've always thought, actually, not really' there's tenderness too, if you look.
What fascinated you about the themed industrial museums?
This idea of people going to look at how people used to work in coal mines. This idea that political expedience would determine the closure of heavy industry and then for it to be reborn for tourist consumption. It was absurd to me! I have a personal beef, too, because a lot of these museums are in the north of England, and a lot of their depictions of the north are very stereotypical. So I was looking at it and questioning it.
You're often labelled a "British social documentary photographer", which makes me think of an outsider looking in on a world. Yet you were an insider too, in a way.
You're always an outsider as a photographer, to a degree. But I always say to my students: photograph things that you know, because that's where good work comes from. Strong, insightful work comes out of knowledge and experience of subject matter. So I've always photographed things that are familiar to me, rather than going off to some far-flung part of the world to photograph some exotic tribe. So in that sense I'm an insider: I am photographing experiences that I've lived myself.
See more photos from Fables of Faubus below: