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Deprivation in Thatcherite Britain with Tish Murtha’s Youth Unemployment

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“My impression is of a whole generation thrown on the scrapheap, yet still making the best of what they have,” says Ella Murtha of Youth Unemployment, the series shot by her mother, Tish Murtha, over a few years from 1979 in Newcastle.

“I see a great bunch of kids, who may not have much in the way of material possessions, but who are rich in the fact that they have each other. The sense of community and friendship is strong as they suffer the misery of debilitating boredom together, and my mam documented their attempts to alleviate it.

Murtha’s images record a time of great change in Newcastle, a city that had been an industrial powerhouse but which was experiencing mass closures of factories and mines, and spiralling unemployment as a result. In the vacuum young adults found few opportunities, and faced severe poverty not experienced by their southern counterparts. Deprivation was an everyday fact of life and in that they were not alone, with youngsters in cities from Manchester to Glasgow, Birmingham to Liverpool feeling the effects of a similarly rapid and debilitating transformation.

“The whole work force was affected by the economic recession, but the problem of youth unemployment was very new and the problems associated with it were manifesting in a new way,” explains Ella of the turbulent economic time.

These financial difficulties were something to which Tish Murtha was particularly sensitive. The third of 10 children, she was born in South Shields in 1956 and left school at 16, selling hot dogs and working in a petrol station to support herself. After enrolling on a night photography course, Tish decided she wanted to become a photographer, and was offered a place at the prestigious School of Documentary Photography at the University of Wales under the guidance of Magnum photographer David Hurn. Images became the way she could express the dissatisfaction she saw all around throughout the Thatcher era.

From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha

“She believed that photography was an important form of visual communication that could stimulate discussions about real-life situations and captured accurate records of the world we live in. She was trying to force people to look at the truth and learn from it,” explains Ella.

Tish’s images capture a raw picture of the struggles faced by the youth at the time. She would often photograph her family, friends and neighbours – people she spent time with every day, and whose struggles she shared. Capturing candid shots of youngsters on the streets, playing cards, building dens and fire, or causing mischief came naturally, because the subjects trusted her.

“She loved to photograph people; she always spent a lot of time talking and listening, and was genuinely interested in them. Growing up we couldn’t go anywhere without her befriending randoms,” laughs Ella fondly.

Taking hundreds of photographs over just a few years, the collection is all-encompassing – yet when Tish died of a brain aneurysm in 2013, she had never released a photobook. Now her daughter is creating one in her stead. Using old notes and documents Ella brought the publication to life, creating a Kickstarter page and finding support from across the country. The Kickstarter also rapidly raised enough money to publish – something that Tish herself would probably never have done.

“Unfortunately my mam could be her own worst enemy, and would never have asked for help,” says Ella. “She was very ‘old school’ – we never had a house phone, she didn’t do the internet and she wouldn’t have an ’email number’. She had really wanted to renew interest in her work as a documentary photographer, but her fear of the internet stopped her.”

From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha

“I have chosen 70 images for the book,” Ella continues. “I have all of my mam’s rough notes from the time she was printing up. She would use notebooks, the backs of contact sheets, old envelopes, basically anything to hand to jot down her thoughts. It was still hard to narrow it down to the 70, but I felt guided by her throughout the process.”

And although the photographs were taken almost 40 years ago, Ella believes that they are as socially and culturally relevant as ever, particularly after the 2007/08 financial crisis. Looking back over the images, she finds a powerful story for today’s politicians and youth – and a warning.

“Things may look different now, but her words and images are still as relevant,” she says. “Only this time there isn’t the same community spirit, the kids will be sat inside on their smartphones, putting them at further risk of alienation and depression.”

But perhaps the most poignant and prophetic words come from the accompanying essay written by Tish Murtha herself, when exhibiting the images at Newcastle’s Side Gallery in 1981: “It must never be forgotten that there are barbaric and reactionary forces in our society, who while having no intrinsic appeal to youth themselves, will not be slow to make political capital from an embittered youth, should the labour movement fail to give their search for new social, economic and political values a positive and sustained direction.”

Youth Unemployment was published by Bluecoat Press in October 2017, priced £19 www.tishmurtha.co.uk The Photographers’ Gallery is showing a large exhibition of Tish Murtha’s work, including Youth Unemployment, from 15 June – 14 October, Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/tish-murtha-works-1976-1991 

Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha
Ella Murtha looking at prints of her mother’s work © Jamie Huntley
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha
From the series Youth Unemployment © Ella Murtha

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