In my first Overcoming Obstacles post, I talked about how my health impacts my photography and in this post I’m thought I’d focus on overcoming class barriers. It seems bizarre to me to still be talking about class in 21st century Britain, but it is alive and well and with a few rare exceptions dictates the trajectory of our lives.
My maternal grandmother was born into poverty. One of 11 children, her education ceased at the age of 11 when she was placed into service as a kitchen maid on a remote rural farm where she worked for 6½ days each week, the other ½ day spent cycling miles home to see her family. She married a factory worker at the age of 19 and entered a life of domestic drudgery in a 1 up 1 down house with no indoor bathroom, which was home to 9 people. In her ‘spare’ time she cleaned wealthy people’s houses.
My Mother was also born into poverty. One of 7 children she passed her 11+ and attended an academic Grammar school, however lack of funds forced her to leave at the age of 15 when she was placed into service as a nanny to four children. When she first married she did piece-work in a Yale factory making locks, then when her own children were born she worked evenings in a Chippy. I still remember her coming home stinking of chip fat and cigarettes. As her children grew up she went to work in the same factory her Dad had worked in (before his heart attack at the age of 56). Her first position was as a kitchen hand but her intelligence was eventually recognized and she was moved to a white collar job in the offices – by which time she was nearly 40 years old.
I, thankfully, was not born into poverty but a blue collar home and I attended the same academic Grammar school as my Mum. I, at least, had the opportunity to sit both my O and A levels but never did progress to University, unlike most of my peers. For a myriad of reasons, the majority of working class children never fulfil their academic potential.
Coming from a blue collar background limits both educational and career opportunities. You expect this as a working class kid. But what I didn’t expect was that it would also limit my creative journey.
Lack of finances is the first obvious obstacle to photographic success for working class people. Cameras and necessary peripheral equipment such as memory cards, batteries, lenses and lights are unnecessarily expensive, however I’ve managed on a shoe string buying as much cheap non-branded gear off Amazon as I can get away with, bidding for 2nd hand clothing for shoots on Ebay, bribing friends and family as models, and gratefully accepting donations of old or unused items from my wealthier friends. I won’t lie, though, it’s a struggle and one has to be creative in finding solutions like using bed sheets for photographic backdrops.
It was when I applied for my first photographic distinction, however, that the financial toll of photography really started to hit home. The cost of printing and mounting 10 images, a proper photography box with which to post them, the entrance fee and the cost of attending the judging (the Lake District is beautiful but it is also geographically remote) set me back a couple of hundred pounds.
Salon distinctions are even more expensive. This year I attained Excellence in FIAP and worked out that the 250 acceptances I had achieved into international exhibitions had cost me in excess of £1000. That’s a lot of money to someone on a low income and looking back I kind’ve wish I’d bought a much needed new laptop with the cash instead.
Photography competitions judged by curators and gallery staff are a great way of getting your work ‘out there’ but are rarely free to enter. The International Photography Awards, for example, costs £25 per image and with 8 genres in the Fine Art category it would cost £200 to enter each section. Multiply this by the 3 or 4 ‘must enter’ photography competitions throughout the year and pretty soon I could have replaced my 17 year old central heating boiler.
When you start touting for gallery representation, class divisions become even more obvious and exclusionary. One is expected to have a photography degree, unlikely to be possessed by working class artists because those who did make it to University are much more likely to choose degrees which lead to guaranteed well paid jobs. Then the photographer is expected to showcase their work through events such as The Other Art Fair, where even if an artist is selected without a degree in their chosen creative field, one stand with two spotlights will set an exhibitor back a minimum £1500. Then for someone like me who lives in the North of England there is the cost of travelling 600 miles to London and back, overnight stays in hotels (the cheapest of which cost £180 per night), plus food and tube fees. All this before you’ve printed, mounted or framed your images for exhibition or worked out the logistics of getting them to the exhibition if you’ve travelled by train!
The odds are so stacked against working class people it’s no wonder most give up and photography remains a skewed middle class perspective on life.
I have to admit, there are times the injustice of working class exclusion is the only thing which keeps me producing new work. I thankfully have enough self esteem to know that my voice is as valid as anyone else’s – it’s just a shame the art world often doesn’t agree and makes it almost impossible for working class creatives to be heard.