Now Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante

Reading Time: 11 minutes

“I said ‘John, it’s fantastic, you’re giving me the history of the place’, and he spun me around and gripped me by the throat, held me up against the wall, his fist clenched and said ‘I don’t know nothing about fucking history, I’m just telling you what happened’. And I thought ‘Wow this is fantastic because that’s what I do’. History is what’s written, my pictures are what happened. It’s like a people’s history, it’s part of a people’s history – the people who history happened to.
“John was saying history is lies – which it isn’t necessarily but it’s not from the point of view of who history happened to,” he adds. “The people who’ve lived it, who history has acted upon. For me that’s why you photograph, one of the big reasons.”
It’s an idea that can be traced through in Killip’s first photobook, which is very different though just as impressive as In Flagrante – Isle of Man, A Book about the Manx, published in 1980. Killip grew up on the island and in his first big project focused on its traditional communities, and an agricultural way of life little changed for centuries. From going back through his archive he’s now printed a much larger portfolio of 250 images from this work, which is now held by the Manx Museum, and says he’s very pleased they’ve gone back to the place they came from.

Crabs and People, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, UK, 1981 © Chris Killip
He’s done something similar with his work from the North East over the years, exhibiting it in the area and ensuring, whenever possible, that the people in the books have copies of them. His Seacoal series has only ever been exhibited in the Side Gallery, for example, which Killip co-founded in Newcastle in 1977; the people he shows in it “all have the book and they all love it”. “The main guy is no longer there, he’s lived in Ireland, he’s lived in Portugal, he’s a long-distance lorry driver and he loves showing the book to all the people,” says Killip. “He’s talked about it and nobody believes him, that he got coal from the sea, but now he’s got the evidence.”
By the same token, he’s publishing work on a small village called Askam-in-Furness with Cafe Royal Books, attracted by the publisher’s “good-enough” print quality and extremely low cover prices – prices so low he can send 60 copies to the local school, and get the books out to the people he photographed. And when Steidl published Pirelli Work in 2007, a series of images Killip shot in the car maker’s tyre factory in Burton on Trent the early 1990s, he rang the local newspaper to track down the workers.
“They said ‘Ah our fishing correspondent used to work at Pirelli, send him the book’,” he says. “So they did an article on it, and said it’s available on Amazon, so people could get it all that time later. It was the closest I could get – originally they were all going to get given it [Pirelli was going to publish it and hand out copies], but at least I was able to make sure they knew about it.”
It’s not a strategy he can always follow – some of the people shown in In Flagrante were strangers, passersby he has no way of tracking down now. But he says he trusts that he isn’t doing harm to anyone, and also points out that, unlike a magazine photographer shooting on assignment, he’s always returned to where he’s shot. “I was photographing places I went back to, I turned up again the next day, and the next day, and the next week, and I have exhibitions in the places and the people come to them,” he says. “I’m very conscious of that, do people know where I am if they’re upset.
“The internet’s great because people can pick up on you – they can just type ‘Chris Killip’,” he adds. “I’ve got this website, they come to that with ‘You don’t know me but you shot…’ and ‘Have you got any pictures of our father?” One guy who drowned, his son got in touch – I thought I didn’t have any photographs of the father, as he didn’t like being photographed, but I found one with the son. So I made a set of prints, and then I thought ‘Hang on, I have to make two sets because there’s a sister as well’. They were so thrilled to get them because it turned out they had no pictures of him, because he didn’t like to get photographed.”
Simon Being Taken out to Sea for the First Time since His Father Drowned, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, UK, 1983 © Chris Killip
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy