It has been well over 30 years since Margaret Thatcher declared that society does not exist; that in fact, only individuals and their families do. Thatcher’s words, spoken in 1987, have since taken on a definitive, almost epochal, place in recent history (and appropriately so), as they neatly sum up the rationality of neoliberal governance which she, along with Ronald Reagan in the United States, was so critical in solidifying. By the mid-1980s, Thatcher’s Conservative government, deeply fearful of inflation, had instituted spending cuts to education, public housing, healthcare, and unemployment benefits, while at the same time dramatically lowering corporate and income tax rates. The welfare state was a destructive liability, they cautioned, and needed to be brought under budgetary control for the long-term prosperity of the country.
If people can no longer rely upon their government to support them in times of uncertainty and need, then what is to stop the disintegration of social solidarity and, in its place, the rise of a vicious war of an all-against-all mentality? The question of what “society” really meant anymore, if anything, became an ideological fight being waged by politicians. The effects of that fight being waged at all are what Paul Graham described in his self-published 1986 monograph Beyond Caring, which has now been reissued by MACK.
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The photographs in Beyond Caring were taken between 1984 and ’85 as Graham, denied official permission to do so, visited dozens of social security and unemployment offices across Britain. With spending cuts to these services already in effect, what Graham saw was a welfare system straining to keep up with a dramatic increase in claims relative to its budgetary and infrastructural capacity. As Steven Cooper and Anne Hollows of the Welfare Benefits Resources Network state in the book’s original introductory text, which is reproduced here, the welfare system in Britain was established after World War II with a projection that it would provide assistance to around 600,000 people. By the time Graham visited these offices, over 10 million people were relying upon some form of welfare for their basic living needs.
It is unsurprising, then, that a persistent feature of Graham’s photographs is the way they describe the act of waiting as a common, and alienating, condition. In truth, waiting is all that seems to “happen” in the photographs, unsurprisingly so. The staff at these offices were paid little more than the amounts being paid to claimants, and the funds that were allocated by the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) to address the dysfunction amounted to little more than minor cosmetic repairs to the dilapidated facilities, leaving claimants with only the pretense of meaningful recourse.
From the first image in the book’s sequence we see the recurring motifs of bodies slouched or contorted in pursuit of durable comfort; eyes staring blankly beyond the frame; minds that seem deliberately vacated. Though Cooper and Hollows note in the introduction that incidents of violence by claimants towards both the DHSS staff and fellow claimants rose sharply during this period, such events are absent from Graham’s photographs: they are less about drama than duration. In place of confrontation they show us collective fatigue.
As an exercise in photojournalism, Beyond Caring was and still is an oblique and suggestive work. Eschewing the dictates of social documentary, with its guiding principle that photography should bring awareness to the failings of a society so that they can be rectified (Lewis Hine being the paragon of this practice), Graham’s photographs refrain from directing blame or accusation: they expose no single bad actor, no abusive boss or petty tyrant. Instead, the emphasis is dispersed, the argument fragmentary; what is at issue is a systemic failing and the indignity it imposes upon individuals. This is not to say, of course, that such failings and injustices have no primary source — this was Thatcher’s Britain, after all. But Graham’s images provide a view of these cruelties packaged in a bureaucratic facade of cold indifference and, at times, plain absurdity.
What exposition the book contains is in the introductory texts: the original, by Cooper and Hollows, followed by a 1986 one from Graham, and, in this new edition, a concluding one from him as well. In both he expresses that his intent was not to construct a polemic in the documentary style that was still practiced widely in Britain at that time, specifically in the context of magazine and print circulation. Graham, like other young British photographers, such as Martin Parr and Nick Waplington, made the uncommon decision to shoot in color, which was still considered the preserve of commercial and fashion photography and thus unsuitable for the gravity of social documentary.
Looking at these photographs today, it’s clear that the poetic effects specific to color film make Graham’s treatment of his subject matter so descriptively resonant. What is crucial in these photographs is that they capture the delirious and almost dystopian color palette of these facilities. The pinks and reds that saturate the benches, along with the bright blues, lemon yellows, and sickly fluorescent greens that pop from the walls and overhead lighting all seem to invoke a psychic atmosphere terribly at odds with the sobering misfortune they effectively stage. Design choices that were likely meant to soften the dullness of a bureaucratic exchange have, in these photographs, taken on the tone of a sardonic joke.
The strain of wry humor that Graham weaves throughout the book works to great effect. Where other artists might have been relentlessly dour, he includes minor keys of farce and absurdity, as when, in the concluding image, an official poster states optimistically that plenty of jobs are available, and that one should not be deterred from trying to obtain employment. On the heels of the 31 prior images, which show varying degrees of malaise and frustration, the poster seems to sum up the situation rather astutely: from the standpoint of the Thatcher administration, this is how social services are supposed to work. Put differently, the breakdown of basic functionality of these services is a feature, not a bug, of new policy; they are meant to make access and usage more difficult, not less.
Although Graham has spoken of his desire to avoid outright polemic, a stance clear enough in the pictures, it’s difficult to look at this work today and not see the full force of condemnation being levied against a government’s deliberate abandonment of its citizens. With that anger simmering just below the surface, in part because it seems so obvious, Graham is able to describe the people in these offices not as archetypal victims of a state indifferent to their plight, but instead as individuals with great specificity who, in spite of their shared circumstance, seem totally apart from one another.
The book’s sequencing reinforces this as it so often follows the most dense and compact images with spaces that seem cavernously empty. In many cases, the people Graham photographs with his low-angled camera sit or stand as though the experience of time passing were all that was left to them. That they appear destined to pass that time alone, and without redress, underscores the precision with which Graham captured the magnitude of change that was unfolding, and which would signal the ever-greater precarity of social services in the decades to come. The legacy of this withering away of the state’s capacity to meaningfully address its citizens’ material needs can be felt most acutely right now, in each passing day, as the performative optimism of our political class seems fully counterbalanced by the collective realization that, when the next crisis arrives, we may not be able to count on those we have elected to help us.
Beyond Caring by Paul Graham is published by MACK Books.