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Revisiting the enduring relevance of Paul Graham’s ‘Beyond Caring’

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Originally self-published in 1986, Beyond Caring documented the waiting rooms of unemployment offices around the UK. Now, 36 years later, it is republished by MACK

I first met Paul Graham in 1992, when he came to visit my class at the Polytechnic of Central London. He made an immediate impression by announcing that he did not wish to speak about his own work. Instead, he wanted to share his enthusiasm for some of the German photographers he had recently met in Berlin, especially Michael Schmidt. Graham’s passion for the documentary image was unabashed, at a time when photography was, and still is, under interrogation. His work could never be considered naïve or condescending towards those he photographed. This awareness of the medium and of his subjects is apparent through the iconic trilogy of photobooks he made in the 1980’s, which are being republished by MACK. 

Beyond Caring is the second publication from the trilogy. The images were made in the waiting rooms and corridors of social security and unemployment offices around the UK. Self-published by Graham in 1986, it is a raw and direct, yet sophisticated, testimony to the power of the straight documentary image. Its republication by MACK is a clear recognition of the importance of Graham’s extensive oeuvre and his influence as a pioneering colour documentary photographer. 

For the most part today, photographers want to be seen as artists, yet photography works best when it is beyond such pretentions, when it portrays a scene with honest and un-judgemental intentions. The British colour documentary photographers of the 80’s of course had a left-leaning political agenda, but the work itself showed the conditions that people endured, allowing the audience to judge for themselves. It is important to note how radical it was to use colour at this time, and how it shifted perceptions of documentary representation. It marked a move away from the heavy monochrome and often romantic depictions, especially of the working class in the UK.

© Paul Graham, ‘DHSS Emergency Centre, Elephant and Castle, South London, 1984’ from Beyond Caring (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

Contained on its pages is evidence of a period of British history when the working class felt the humiliation of unemployment in a post-industrial Britain. Over three million people were out of work and dependent on state benefits. Beyond Caring is a microcosm of the bigger picture of the social, economic and political effects of mass unemployment. It is a visual survey of the breakdown of welfare benefits across the UK: ridiculously under-funded, and evident through the conditions people endured in these unemployment offices while “signing on the doll”, as seen in Graham’s photographs.

Most telling are the carefully balanced words Graham wrote as an introduction, entitled State Benefits. Here, Graham tells his experiences, as someone who had also “signed on’”. These are stories of neglect and a lack of compassion from an overburdened staff, too few in numbers. Revisiting this book after many years, I am disgruntled, as the realism of these photographs conjures a dark memory of my own experiences in those very places. Such is the power of these photographs, and the greatest testimony I can give to the work. 

Beyond Caring by Paul Graham is published by MACK.

Michael Grieve

Michael Grieve has been a contributing writer and photographer for the British Journal of Photography since 2011. He has an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, graduating in 1997, and then began working on assignments as a reportage and portrait photographer for publications. In 2008 he began writing about photography and was the deputy editor of 1000 Words Contemporary Photography Magazine. In 2011 he began teaching and was a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and now teaches documentary photography at Ostkreuzschule fur Fotografie in Berlin. He is the founder/director of Art Foto Mode, a project that organises photography workshops internationally. Currently based in Athens and Berlin.

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