Britain Before Brexit in photos: an intimate portrait of the West Midlands
The Independent’s photographer Richard Morgan examines his own country in the midst of Brexit’s chaos, scrutinising the contrasts of contemporary Britain and the ambivalence of modern Britishness. This week: the West Midlands
Britain is divided, by 12 regions, a statistical arrangement designed to help governments see the life of the population in graphs, charts and tables. I’m looking at Britain through these regions too, but not statistically, not through numbers that ignore the brilliant details of everyday life, but through the lens of my camera, on the ground, up close.
Somewhere on the edge of Wolverhampton, near Blakenhall, I become part of a scene that says something about social observation in modern Britain. I’m walking slowly, eyes wide open, looking at everything, camera in hand, another over the shoulder. And I’m being followed, to my right, by a kerb-crawling car, whose driver is filming me on his smartphone, Scientology-style. Before I decide what to do, another man approaches the car from behind me and, mistakenly thinking that he is the one being recorded, confronts the cameraman: “Oi?! What are you filming my shop for, mate?!”
A chain reaction of optical cause and effect is set in motion: an observer observed by an observed observer; suspicions arousing suspicions; fear breeding fear. I take it all in for a second – the layers of surveillance and scrutiny – and understand that while I’m photographing modern Britain, modern Britain is looking back at me, suspiciously. I walk away along Birmingham Road, heading back into town, no longer pursued, but still looking, still being looked at, feeling the complex pressures of photographing in a society where the camera can at once be weapon and shield, where photographer can be offender, witness, detective, and judge, and where the photograph itself can become evidence, art, propaganda, myth, memory.
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I walk out early into Worcester’s Halloween hangover. Discarded remnants of last night’s costumes are strewn across the street. I go to the town centre, where a frightened young man stands atop a building contemplating suicide. There’s a siren screeching. It’s spitting. The high street’s been cordoned off. I join a group of spectators behind police tape. Some people are filming. We watch as a crane lifts a fireman up above the evacuated banks and shops to convince the suicidal individual to come back down to earth.
The crowd doesn’t applaud the rescue. There is no collective sigh of relief. People tut and grumble: “attention seeker”, “what a waste of tax payers’ money”, “all of that for nothing”. They’re quantifying human existence, I think, valuing the young man’s pain and suffering monetarily, as if they’d be happier if he had jumped because the public expenditure would have got something for its money. As the young man gets into an ambulance, turning to flick the Vs at the crowd, I think about what a life in Britain is worth these days, about what it costs to be rescued, the price of another chance.
Hanging from the door of the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Warwick is a drape of red poppies made from plastic bottle bottoms, painted red, with a black spot drawn in the centre of each. As a national symbol of commemoration, the red poppy is being used in a number of interesting ways for Armistice Day – fired from tanks, dropped from balconies, cascading into a red river flowing from a window of the Imperial War Museum – but this arrangement, the painted bottles, is the most interesting I’ve seen yet.
It’s a blend of agendas important to this country: recycling in the service of memorialisation; a curious coming together of remembrance and the ethics of 21st century environmentalism. The meaning of the artwork is twofold: never forget lives lost in conflict, but remember to reuse plastic.
When I turn up to Coventry’s Multi-Faith Peace Walk, I’m greeted as a contestant might be on a TV game show: “Hello! What’s your name? Where d’you come from? What’s your religion?” It’s way too early for all that, so I just say: “Hi. I’m Richard. Pleased to be here.” The lord mayor of Coventry gives a speech about reconciliation, an important idea for the city ever since the church called for forgiveness – not retaliation – after the medieval cathedral was destroyed in the Blitz.
We read prayers from different religions, lift the banner of “Peace”, and take a tour of the city, visiting four places of worship – a Christian church, a spiritualist church, a mosque, a Sikh temple – along the way. I take note of comments made by onlookers: “Peace?! What peace?!”, “Some people just haven’t got anything better to do”, “Иди на хуй” (“F*** you” in Russian).
The spiritualist minister tells me that forgiveness is part of the human condition, and I wonder if she is communicating with Hannah Arendt from beyond the grave, right now, before my very eyes. Later I stand amid the remains of the medieval cathedral and look upon the sculpture Reconciliation that is permanently installed in the grounds. It’s a depiction, I think, of woman and man, locked in a kneeled embrace, going through the painful catharsis of forgiveness. I stay a little longer, savouring the moment, acutely aware of how unusual it is to find reconciliation enshrined within the ruins of war.
For more of Richard Morgan’s work you can visit his website here