Given how little images can actually do, it is often surprising how much we expect of them. We pin our hopes on them to reveal and transform, to mitigate injustice and make the world a better place. Documentary photographers—often drawn to complex social problems and issues in the world—continuously grapple with the limits of what their work can and can’t do, as well as the ethical constraints of whom they represent and for what intended audience. While images can occasionally pierce the haze and initiate a response, more often than not, any efficacy and meaning emerge out of a constellation of social activities that surround the images before, during, and after their creation. Linkages of cause and effect are often opaque, and the real work and change often comes on the ground.
Fancy Pictures gathers together roughly twelve years of British photographer Mark Neville’s socially engaged documentary work. From his first major project, The Port Glasgow Book Project (2004), to his most recent, Battle Against Stigma (2015), Neville embeds himself within a community (living with and photographing them for months), and then creates a book, slideshow, or exhibition for that community. Bypassing traditional outlets for that kind of work, the subject and audience of the work are one and the same. As Neville states in the book, he was initially interested in extending the “idea of ‘institutional critique’ to social documentary photography.” Although the issues addressed are socially concerned, like the lingering effects of PTSD or the long-term health effects of environmental contamination, the projects just as often simply document a community like Port Glasgow or the Isle of Bute in Scotland.
Community engagement is not new to the medium. The work of Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua and Kurdistan are both well-known and notable examples, as is Dana Lixenberg’s recent Imperial Courts project, which documented an African-American housing project and community in Los Angeles over a period of more than 20 years. In this sense, Neville’s work has a well-established lineage. Where it stands out are in his imaginative and pictorially ambitious images that often employ a variety of different cameras and elaborately staged lighting. Alongside more traditional, observational pictures are others that are clearly staged and required intricate planning, lighting, and in many cases, collaboration with his subjects. One example is in Deeds Not Words (2011), which looks at the long-term environmental and health effects of a defunct and poorly reclaimed steel works plant in the English town of Corby. Largely focused on the adolescents in the community, the work contains two startling sequences of a young man and boy who were both born missing fingers—likely results of the pollution. Photographed separately in individual three image sequences, each is shown cradling a balloon as it gradually pops from one image to the next. Unexpected and slightly jarring, the two sequences present their subjects in a newly humanizing light. In the past, the local newspapers had typically shown them holding up their disembodied hands for scrutiny and display. Eschewing these sensationalistic portrayals, Neville’s images not only humanize his subjects, but freeze and make visible an event that, not unlike the hidden pollution that surrounds the community, is invisible to the naked eye but erupts in unforeseen ways. In other cases, Neville uses multiple strobes to transform an otherwise mundane scene, like a town dance or feeding livestock, into a cinematic tableau. Long used by photographers to expand the possibilities of traditional documentary work, these kinds of techniques disrupt the illusionistic transparency of the documentary genre by injecting unexpected and performative gestures and drama into otherwise unremarkable scenes, drawing us closer to his subjects, and highlighting their humanity with humor and empathy.
While the book celebrates Neville, it is also sufficiently engaged with the social value of his work to acknowledge its occasional failures and missteps. Some such incidents—such as his unsuccessful attempt to effect legislative change through Deeds Not Words, and the book burning that some outraged Protestants undertook in reaction to the perceived pro-Catholic bias of The Port Glasgow Book Project (2004 – 06)—are disclosed in a revealing interview with David Campany that is woven throughout the book, but are also evidenced in reproductions of newspaper articles, letters, and emails from the various communities in response to the work. Although the book is overwhelmingly positive in its treatment of Neville’s work, the inclusion of this material points to the inherent dilemma in the visual representation of his projects, which are fundamentally about his engagement with the communities. While many of the projects have goals in keeping with the genre—like raising awareness of PTSD or pressuring legislators to address an environmental issue—the focus always returns to the community at hand.
Like most smart documentarians, Neville is acutely aware of the power imbalance among the documentarian, the subject, and the audience. Divorced from the community and concrete action, images can only do so much. Neville clearly cares about affecting change, raising awareness, and provoking dialogue, but knows that these are always difficult things to measure and can’t be done by the images themselves. Ultimately, the heart of Neville’s projects lies not only in their redistribution and careful contextualization, but also in how that same community has used, responded to, and transformed these works. In this sense, the book tries to have it both ways. It is a celebration of Neville and his photographic work, which is beautifully reproduced and now available to a general audience, but it also attempts to illuminate the less tangible social and cultural effects the work might have had in the communities. Letters and newspaper clippings hint at this, but do not give the full picture.
Unfortunately, none of these dynamics can be easily described in a sumptuous art book. Acknowledging the limited effect of the photographs themselves, Neville ambitiously attends to the context of his images, keenly aware that their real meaning extends beyond the pictures and lies in their making, reentry, and continued life in the community. This should be a given for any attentive and successful documentarian. Books, slideshows, and local exhibits all allow the images to speak back to the community, initiating subsequent action and dialogue, but they’re never enough. If, as Neville suggests in the interview, all his projects are about his search for a sense of family, the works can be read like a series of interconnected family albums, and remind us that the social ties that lie behind the images are infinitely more important than what they may reveal to outsiders. Even as beautiful books and photographs, Neville’s photographic work fails to reveal the scope of his artistic project. How these pictures were made, what happened afterwards, and what continues to occur with those images and books are infinitely more intangible and important, and more than most monographs can reveal.