Is austerity really such a terrible thing? Sure, in times of crisis people do tend to smash each other in the head more often, underestimate the value of their own lives and end up cast adrift in a hellish world of drugs, mental illness and homelessness. Then again – and sorry to pull rank here, but I'm from fucking Greece, so I know – austerity also helps strip the pointless bullshit from people's lives. No more taxis. No more expensive hangover pizzas. No more white peacocks for your garden. No more diamond slippers. These things don't seem quite so important when you're preoccupied with figuring out where tonight's dinner's coming from.
Si Barber is a Norfolk-based photographer who, for the past six or so years, has been sensitive enough to the hilarity of life in credit crunch Britain to photograph it honestly. I don't know if that means anything coming from a foreigner, but browsing through his The Big Society project I'm met with images of the Britain I dreamt of as a kid and came to love as an adult; the wonderfully fucked-up loner of Europe.
I spoke to Si about his work.
VICE: Hi Si. So you've been working on your Big Society project for a while now, right?
I am always working on The Big Society. When I started it in 2007, I could just spend a couple of hundred quid on diesel, accommodation and food and run off to Scotland for the weekend – it would all just be absorbed within my business, which is commission-based photography. Now that times have gotten a bit harder, I try to get as much out of a shoot as possible. I’ll go off and do two or three things at the same time.
Is it often that you get involved in a project you absolutely hate?
I don’t hate any of them, I find the imagination of some of the people that commission work fairly limited. I also work quite a lot for broadsheet newspapers and they have a limited view on what constitutes a good picture. They might ask for a bit of side-lighting, for example, which is a little bit old-hat.
What I like about your pictures is their simplicity. It seems like you just point your camera at something interesting you come across, and take a picture that makes sense.
Is there a particular image that stands out to you?
The Flower Queens
I really like the photo of the Flower Queens. The Barbie memorial, too.
There’s a sort of underlying sadness in both those pictures. The Flower Queens one is particularly interesting because this year's parade was the last parade ever. It takes place in Spalding, Lincolnshire, which is a very rural area and a centre for the flower industry – if somebody ever buys you flowers from a petrol station, they’re probably from Lincolnshire. Anyway, the parade used to be funded by the local council and the local businesses but nobody’s got any money now. They’ve also had a lot of immigration coming in from Eastern Europe so there’s a sort of tension. Not of the physical violence kind, but a cultural tension, which makes the place quite interesting.
What about the crucified Barbie?
That was up in Cumbria on a road called the A66, which is locally known as quite a dangerous one. There are loads of accidents but the saddest thing is that the councils clear away the memorials once they are set up. Officially, they’re regarded as a form of advertising, which I think is quite sad really. Then again, they really look cheap. “Sorry you’re dead but a fiver is all I can spend on you.” But that's just my opinion, I wouldn’t want to degrade anyone’s memory. In any case, I find them interesting; They stay up there for a few days and then they disappear as if they’d never existed at all.
Road accident memorial, on the A66, Cumbria.
What’s your favourite photo?
I think it's the one of the Claudia Schiffer poster that's been covered up with a painted on hijab. I saw it in Oldham in Manchester, an area with a large Muslim population, and what I like most about it is the bus in the background. To me, this is a very traditional English symbol – I think it creates a certain tension in the picture, which I enjoy.
One thing I have noticed about your pictures is that a lot of them are devoted to army life. What’s that about?
I grew up as a military child. My dad was in the Royal Air Force and the thing that always strikes me about the military is that they have this sort of front where everything is orderly, but behind the scenes it’s a total disaster. For example, the rates of the divorce of people in the military are absolutely huge – it’s over 50 percent.
How do you explain that?
I think it’s partly because you’re moving about all the time. The other thing that interests me is the sentimentality revolving around the military. The mainstream press is geared to present war as some sort of noble endeavour. Whereas, in reality it's all about old people sending young people to die. If they come back, that's with bits missing off them, that type of thing. There doesn’t seem to be any real conversation about that in the media.
Welcoming home the troops from Afghanistan. The body of Private James Grigg is conveyed into Stradbrook church Suffolk. The 21-year-old became the 257th member of the British forces to die there when he was killed by an explosion in Musa Qala.
Would you say you’d like your pictures to create that kind of conversation?
Absolutely, but as soon as you pose such a question people shut you down as a radical. And of course there’s this whole thing, where these guys come back and they have been hurt and are taken care of by a charity. This creates this whole "hero" idea, which is grossly sentimental, almost to a point of being sinister. The government sends people to war but when they come back, they expect a charity to sort them out.
Apparently, in the UK because of the recession, loads of people want to join the army and you have recruiters going into schools, showing children all these great pictures of people running around with guns. They don’t show the people coming back with no legs. When people want you to do things that are against your best interests, they often wrap the suggestions in a sense of patriotism. Suddenly, wasting your life is your duty.
Speaking of patriotism, there’s a level of it in your photos demonstrated in many ways. There’s a bittersweet feeling running through the project, I think; as if they are saying: England's great, England’s funny and England’s fucked up.
You’re absolutely right. When times are tough you tend to see surges of patriotism. Like with Thatcher and the Falklands. My dad was involved in the war – I was 14 when that war kicked off. At the time nobody knew where the Falklands was, people thought it was near Scotland. After Thatcher won it back, it became this huge part of England and Englishness. Which is all completely manufactured, really.
Royal Wedding celebrations.
Obviously, I don't think there’s anything wrong with loving your country. I just think that when people get too patriotic we often get it wrong. You’ll see people writing "I Love Great Britain" and they can’t spell the word. At the Royal Wedding celebrations, I happened upon this guy making a speech about how great Britain is, on the street, holding a flag on a pole. As soon as he stopped shouting, he unfurled the flag and turns out he’d put the flag on wrong. That’s how stupid people can get when they take things to extremes.
You mentioned you begun working on The Big Society in 2007. What came first, the idea for the project or the photos of Britain in recession shock?
I was walking around Cambridge and I went down a street and there was a big queue of people standing outside a Northern Rock branch. They were queuing up to get their money out because the bank had gone bankrupt and it was the first bank to go bust in this country in 150 years. It struck me then that there was something afoot because there wasn’t much in the papers about the crash at the time, so I started doing bits and bobs and as the credit crunch came on, I started doing more. The difference was then that I didn’t have to go and find subjects, they tended to appear in my way more and more frequently.
Would you say a bad economy contributes to absurd behaviour?
Absolutely, the ironic thing is that the best pictures happen in bad economies. I started the project in 2007 and I was going all over the country then looking for subjects, but what I’m interested in is not the big picture, not the riots and stuff like that. What I care about is the smaller things. I want to photograph the roadside memorial, not the accident. When you look at the picture of the accident you get the shock of seeing somebody injured, whereas with the memorial you get a look at the pathetic nature of life. I don’t mean that life is pathetic but putting together this memorial with a couple bits of wood, can give you an idea of the fragility of life more than anything else.
See more of Si's work here.
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