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Ewen Spencer, “Necking, Twice as Nice, Ayia Napa” (2001)
Ewen Spencer, “Necking, Twice as Nice, Ayia Napa” (2001)Courtesy of the artist

5 photographers documenting British working-class life today

We explore After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1986-2024, a new touring exhibition curated by Johny Pitts and featuring the likes of Ewen Spencer, Eddie Ochtere and Richard Billingham

When you look at the history of British working-class photography, there’s a tendency to focus solely on struggle and hardship, as if the essence of working-class existence could be distilled into moments of adversity. Chris Killip, for instance, was known for his powerful black-and-white shots of communities in the UK, particularly his In Flagrante book which portrayed industrial decline and its impact on communities in the North East. Shirley Baker documented candid working-class life in post-war Britain, and Daniel Meadows chronicled marginalised individuals and residents on council estates. Yet, to confine working-class photography within this narrow frame is to overlook its dynamic evolution, and myriad hues beyond mere survival.

From the inception of photography in the 19th century, when the cost rendered it a privilege of the elite, to the seismic shifts of the Industrial Revolution, photography has mirrored the metamorphosis of society. Urban landscapes, the rise of industry, the heartbeat of working-class neighbourhoods – all found expression through the camera’s eye. It became a tool for advocacy, for shining a light on the harsh realities of labour and living conditions

35 years down the line, it’s interesting to think about what British working-class photography has become – particularly in the wake of the catastrophe that we call our Tory government. This is the idea that historian and curator Johny Pitts invites us to consider in Hayward Gallery Touring’s exhibition After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1986-2024, which explores life through the lenses of working-class artists like Kavi Pujara, Elaine Constantine, Rene Matić, Ewen Spencer, Richard Billingham, Serena Brown, Nathaniel Télémaque and Eddie Otchere. “Usually my work speaks to inclusivity, but actually, the first thing I thought when I designed this exhibition was who I wanted to exclude,” says Pitts. “Which is to say, how do I design a show that excludes people who’ve inherited loads of money, or the usual ‘concerned’ British documentary photographers from middle-class backgrounds who document working-class people, instead of working-class people documenting themselves? I love some of the work that has been made by these middle-class photographers, by the way, but I wanted to transgress the usual canon that gets mentioned when we think of British photography.”

“This is also why I chose the era after the 80s. Curators, who are often of a certain age, seem to be obsessed with anything before the 1990s or the tyranny of the new – the latest hottest trend. But I think there are big gaps in our knowledge of the recent past. I grew up in the 90s and 00s constantly being fed images of (usually white) miners and protests, but my working-class life had a completely different logic and look.”

As the exhibition kicks off in Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry – before heading to Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea in July and Bonington Gallery, Nottingham in September – we turn to five photographers featured in the show to hear about what being working-class means today and how this transpires through their image making.

“Being working class is about choices – or lack of them – as well as how much confidence you have as you move through the world. This is even more evident now, as the gap between those who have and those who haven’t has widened.

“These images are from This Golden Mile, a project that emerged as a means for me to reconnect with Leicester, its residents and my past, after three decades living away in London. I returned to my childhood city in 2016, the same week as the EU referendum result – a moment when both the personal and political converged. While the vote was ostensibly about Britain’s role in Europe, it also fuelled a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment. Moving back with my wife and two young children, I needed to redefine how I saw my old neighbourhood today, that it was no longer the place of racist taunts and attacks that I had endured growing up here in the 70s and 80s. 

“In the wake of Brexit, I wanted to show that ultimately this experiment in multiculturalism had succeeded, how this immigrant community had enriched the city rather than pushing it to ‘breaking point’, as so often stated in pro-Brexit headlines.”


“[Working class] means my childhood, my teens and my twenties, my friends and family, my culture and everyone I knew. It puts a label on a life that, as I look back, came to an end when I moved to London and started to work in a different world and meet people from all walks of life. 

“This is the Northern Soul scene in the 90s. The narratives I am trying to share are the passion for music and the fact that the scene goes beyond the dancefloor in so many ways. If somebody looks up any dancefloor footage on YouTube from a Northern Soul event and is excited by it, then maybe goes on to attend an all-nighter, I feel like I’ve done my job. I don’t want this music or scene to die with my generation.”


“The photographs I’ve collaboratively made have attempted to create a portrait of the White City Estate, as well as represent everyday aspects of being a young Black person living in the area. It is key to highlight that White City was formerly the site of an imperial-colonial exhibition grounds that hosted the 1908 Olympics alongside a series of contentious human villages. In addition to this, one of the photographs also shares a map of the White City Estate, which shows how most roads in the area are named after a country contributing to events held at the previous exhibition grounds, as well how every housing block’s name valourises imperial-colonial figures of the British Empire. Intervening in the imperial-colonial histories of the site, the photographs centre on ordinary Black experiences and renderings of Black joy. Slim and Wavy are two of my kingship collective peers living on the estate, who are featured in the photographs I’ve contributed to the exhibition. 

“A lot of contemporary depictions of Black life in and or around council estates are fairly sensationalised. I find that these types of representations exist in dissonance with the everyday realities Black people may actually experience living and working in these types of areas. So for me, it’s important to create ordinary and fairly mundane depictions of Black life, rather than hyped-up or romanticised representations.”


“Being working class can feel like starting life five steps behind other people, but it’s also taught me the value of having your village, your community to lean on and to support those around you.

“These images are part of a series documenting the appropriation of working-class culture in fashion. I made a selection of bootleg designer tracksuits and photographed them near each of my subject’s homes. All of the subjects in the series were friends from my area in West London; Chantelle’s (Bollo Bridge) lived here most of her life and the area has seen huge urban regeneration and gentrification. Many people who lived in the area had their blocks knocked down and were rehoused in different parts of the country. Since I took this image just six years ago, the building behind Chantelle in this image no longer exists and has been replaced with expensive flats.

“The project is about more than just clothes, it’s about the erasure of community and the influence working-class people have on us as a society. I want the viewer to see these images as a reminder that, in many ways, working-class people are constantly priced out of spaces, communities and culture that they very often build from the ground up.” 


“I produced five prints for the show. All of the images are quasi-portraits and quasi-documentary images. You can see it’s late at night, you sense there is music in the air. Everyone is dressed to impress. They’re dancing, they’re hanging out. This is a society of young people after midnight. 

“There are entire worlds they have not told you about. These worlds are hidden to protect the scornful gaze of others. If young people, mixed shades of people all dancing with hardcore junglist energy are to be feared, it’s because it’s beautiful and spiritually correct. We must be free to dance, to create high times and ride bass lines as our divine right. We need spaces like parks for sound systems. We are here to dance in the face of oppression and we must collectively defend our working-class pastimes in all their complexities. A ruthless antithesis to the corporationalist work ethic. This ethic is oftentimes a race to the bottom. Let it go. Remember who you are. Dance.”

After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024 begins its tour at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry and is running until June 16. The full touring schedule can be found here.

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