Mark Neville is an English artist, working at the intersection of art and documentary, investigating the social function of photography. His work consistently looks to subvert the traditional role of social documentary practice, seeking to find authentic ways of empowering the position of its subject over that of the author. Neville often works with closely knit communities, in a collaborative process intended to be of direct, practical benefit to the subject. His photographic projects to date, such as Deeds not Words, Fancy Pictures and the Port Glasgow Book Project have frequently made the towns he portrays the primary audience for the work. His lens based projects have been actualised in many forms; still photography, non-commercially available giveaway books and slow motion film.
We caught up with Mark during his visit to Singapore for his solo show, Child’s Play & Other Stories at the Arts House, part of the Singapore International Photography Festival’s incredible program. We spent a fascinating morning talking to him about the ideas and influences behind his work, his processes and how his experiences as a social documentary photographer have shaped his life and work. Humble and very well informed, Neville highlights global narratives with great relevancy, championing both important causes such as children’s rights, the wealth/poverty divide and mental health, as well as marginalised communities often unable to represent themselves. His work has been recognised in numerous international solo shows, awards and a nomination by the New York Times for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012.
1. You started off as an artist who was relatively unknown. What were you doing before your social documentary work took off with the Port Glasgow Book Project in 2004? How was your work different to what you are doing now?
I spent a lot of time in art school. A foundation year in Newcastle upon Tyne, then four years at Reading University, followed by an MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London. From there I went directly on to do another MA at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. Goldsmiths had a great culture of debate and discussion so I learnt a lot about philosophy and sociology and how to really think about my work in terms of society and context. But at the time, it didn’t have the best facilities or access to good equipment. The Rijksacademie in Amsterdam on the other hand, had amazing studios and workshop facilities with a state of the art photography studio so I was thrilled to go there afterwards. However, the programme lacked that culture of thought that I had had at Goldsmiths so I left after a year. I also started modelling for designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Yohji Yamamoto midway through my time at Reading University because I needed the cash. For two years I had agents in Paris, Milan and Tokyo and I got to travel a lot. I made a lot of money and spent a lot too.
After I finished at the Rijksacademie, I was about 30 and settled in Antwerp, Belgium. For four years I tried to get recognition for my work as an artist. Looking back, I think it was a mistake to live there. I kept thinking of returning to London but friends of mine were struggling there and in Antwerp I could have a reasonable quality of life and make new work so I thought that was the best strategy. I was mostly making slow motion film then, which I still use now. It feels like less of a movie and more of a meditation on an image. I didn’t start with photography until I was about 35.
2. How do you choose your subject matter? Are you looking for a problem to solve or a cause to champion?
It depends, it could be a variety of subjects; a place, a demographic of people or an issue. Battle Against Stigma is about mental health. I find it a common source of inspiration, I’m really fascinated by mental health issues. We are all on the spectrum with it and are also learning all the time, yet we seem to know so little about how the mind works. Child’s Play, is concerned with the mental health issues of young people and the phenomenon of shrinking childhoods, which impacts children’s mental health greatly. Bethlem Royal Hospital, in London, which is infamously known as Bedlam, is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world and I am currently doing a residency there, commissioned by the Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Whenever you see a Victorian or Gothic psychiatric hospital depicted in a film, it is always based on that place.
The Deeds not Words project was really about the town of Corby. I’d been working for about ten years in Glasgow and had made the Port Glasgow Book Project and Fancy Pictures on the Isle of Bute. Wherever I went, people asked me if I knew the town of Corby, 200 miles south of the Scottish border. It’s known as little Scotland. A big steel mill opened there in the 1930’s and the Scots were told that if you went to work in Corby at the steelworks, you’d be given a house with an indoor toilet, which resulted in people moving down there, which continued for generation after generation. They sell Irn Bru everywhere in Corby, speak with a Glaswegian twang and even have their own Highland Games. It’s strange because it’s surrounded by typical English towns.
After looking at Scottish identity for years, I felt like I had to talk to people and take pictures there when I finally heard about a group of families known as the Corby 16. They had been poisoned by the toxic waste after the reclamation of the former British steel sites which caused birth defects in their children and they had started a case against the council. Though the photographs were based on the town as a whole, exploring its deep-rooted Scottish identity, I did photograph some of the people involved in the court case and it inspired me. I realised that I could help them to effect policy change around land reclamation so I distributed my photobook, which included twenty pages of scientific evidence of the link between toxic waste and birth defects, non-commercially, to all 433 of the local government authorities in the UK.
Sometimes I get invited to do lots of different types of project and I say no to a lot because they don’t inspire me. My work takes a lot of funding, a solid infrastructure and support. Sometimes I do the fundraising and make contact with the prospective partnership organisations myself but I have to say no if I don’t have the energy or don’t feel like I can rely on the people inviting me. Sometimes I’m just fascinated by a challenge, like the request I received to do a photo essay on London for the New York Times, that was based on my curiosity about the wealth and equality gap.
3. You seem to enjoy the synergies within and between your work when you talk about it. What makes a great Mark Neville photograph? How do you know? Who decides?
Artists are often the worst at deciding this and also in editing their own work. I have got it wrong a few times, including thinking originally that two of my best known images were perhaps a bit too emotional or sentimental. I have been lucky to work with some very gifted curators, editors and writers who have steered my choices. But, yes, I am usually, if not always, searching for certain criteria in my images. It is easy to make good photos, tough to make very good photos and I think I have only taken half a dozen really exceptional photos during my career so far. Those are the images which have a really long shelf life, that you can return to again and again and which still carry an emotional charge, an enigma, every time the viewer goes back to them. Those are the images I am aiming to make every time I begin a new project.
4. What are you doing between projects? What is the part of your job that we don’t see?
Fundraising is a big part of it but nowadays I am also exhibiting a lot more. I have had four major solo shows in the past two years in London, Derby in England, Moscow and Singapore. I am also part of huge touring exhibitions which are wonderful but they also take up a lot of time and effort. Apart from that, I also spend a lot of time trying to formulate what it is I want to do next.
5. You’ve said that you are interested in how photography can impact the real world, but a lot of your process seems to be organic. During a project or social experiment, at what stage is your purpose to create impact realised?
That is really difficult to quantify and projects seems to go on for years and years. You have different milestones in the life of a project; you might publish a book which is a milestone and then the next phase of that is the response to the book. One tangible way to evaluate its significance has been to give out my email address. With Battle Against Stigma, based on my time as an official war artist in the Helmund province, Afghanistan in 2011, I received thousands of responses. Those testimonials have now become a major archive on modern warfare so that is another tangible output so they will also be made into a response at some point.
Part of the frustration of what I do is that that response is quite rare. I sometimes wonder, in my darker moments, if I would have done better as a hedge fund manager in the city because I would have been able to give money to my causes that way, rather than something arbitrary like making books and sending them out into the world. At other times I do see a tangible reaction and sometimes it affects people but they don’t tell you so you aren’t aware of it. I am doing it for selfish reasons because I’m an artist and it fulfils me. When I was younger I was ambitious for me and now as an older man, I’m ambitious for the work. All artists want to have a career; you can produce art and still not have a career but you also can’t have a career without making the work so you have to dedicate yourself to creating substantial work. The rest is in the lap of the gods.
6. Were you always good at building trust/getting accepted by your subjects or is that something you’ve learnt over time? Do you do a lot of research on that before you go into a community?
I’ve had to learn and yes I do carry out some research but I try not to overdo it. I always just try to be very open and show no fear. As soon as you start feeling uncomfortable, people see your discomfort and they pick up on that. It took me a long time to understand that and it is certainly something that I had to learn. It’s always difficult to go up to someone and take a picture or walk into a room with the camera because it’s an intrusive act. It is important that you are not seen as a voyeur. I’m a good person and feel like I’m doing something important that benefits people and that gives me the courage to go up to them and go into strange communities and stand my ground and make my work. It’s all about showing no fear. If the people are kind enough to let me in, then I respect them and make sure I keep them informed about how the work will be disseminated. I also try to be kind and upbeat and generous when I’m around them because it’s only through their good will that I can make the work.
I’ve met some wonderful people and some very unpleasant people too but I’m still there through their generosity and I think that is my search for a place to belong. I had a troubled childhood and a distant family life. This constant plunge into different communities is a search, deep down for belonging and for a family. There is a flip side, be that in the British army or Pittsburgh, that I have been part of these places and I am embraced by these communities yet I never feel fully accepted and it is always hard to move on. Most of the time in Port Glasgow, I was living and breathing the community and I liked to stay there and live there. In the British army, I was living with them too. Again in Corby, I almost lived in the town in the end and rented a room there. But I am always slightly ‘other’, I’m not Scottish and I’m not a trained soldier either.
7. Do you have your own communities? Are you part of one or many? How important is that in your own life?
I now have the art community and have professional friends who I care about, who I respect and admire and have friendships with. I don’t have my own family and I’m not married and I don’t have my parents. Compared to other men of my age, I’m a bit unusual but it’s certainly a trade-off and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to produce the body of work I have if I did have a family. I’ve been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by the New York Times and I went to the Helmund Province as an official war artist for three months. I’ve seen things that most people have never seen or had access to and that is quite an honour. Being able to exhibit my work, have huge solo exhibitions and for people to know about it and want it, is incredible. Neither of my parents were interested in culture or literature but I always wanted this.
8. You have talked about your assignment in the Helmund province, Afghanistan as like being in a ‘silent nightmare’. Obviously you now know that you were suffering from adjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when you returned home to London. Generally, how do you feel after leaving a project, such as Port Glasgow or Pittsburgh and how do you readjust to normal life again, is there a process you now go through?
I don’t really enjoy talking about my experience in Helmund because I still find it difficult and emotional, however I do talk about it because I think it’s really important to raise the issue. I’ve been back to a war zone since in the Ukraine. People are still dying, towns are still being bombed which has left two million people displaced. I have found it easier to go back this time, I don’t know if it’s less of a shock or if it’s just easier to get away from the front line than when we were being shot at by the Taliban. In the Ukraine it’s easier to get in and out. I need a press card to get there, which I have and I‘ve found that I have been able to manage myself pretty well there. Now, when I go back to the UK, I just check myself and make sure l relax, take some time off and watch some movies.
The whole process of making my work doesn’t get easier so I have to really dive in and immerse myself in those communities and there are no shortcuts with that. In order to feel that I’m really doing my work and delivering, I have to live it like a method actor.
I still see some of the people I met from Corby and Afghanistan. That’s amazing really. With the experience of war and being shot at together, you become bosom buddies and forge bonds that are very difficult to break. Actually, with Afghanistan, that is one of the few good things to have come out of that experience.
Interestingly, when I gave a talk somewhere in Hong Kong recently, someone was there from Port Glasgow and they had one of the photo books I distributed to the community after the project and asked me to sign it. I also got an email from a guy the other day who drove me through Bolan market in Helmund in a tank. He’s now doing humanitarian work for someone in Bangladesh and he wanted to use some of my images. There’s a sense in which these projects continue and my relationships with those places does too, so that’s wonderful. I’m a very lucky guy really.
9. The need to serve, empower, represent other people seems to be a driving force in projects like the Port Glasgow Book Project and Deeds not Words, where does that come from? Why is it important to you?
I never thought that it was enough to just hang pictures on a wall in a gallery or a museum. Social documentary work deals with reality in a very direct way. It has a potency and an immediacy and I think those who choose to work in that genre should respect their subjects and use the medium in an ambitious way. I am sick of pretty pictures with no ambition…and there is a lot of it out there on all levels of the contemporary art spectrum.
10. You have said that you identify as an artist and not a journalist. In part, is that because a journalist doesn’t project their own narrative on their work, whereas an artist creates a visual narrative and sets up shots?
I don’t think there is any such thing as an objective photograph. When I take a picture now I’m always thinking of framing, light etc which all manipulate reality. I am shaping reality through the social documentary genre so it’s a mixture; I decide on the truth I want to tell about a place or demographic and then I go all out to deliver those messages so the photos have a particular mood. My images of London are heightened and extreme, depicting poverty and referencing Depression era America and Oliver Twist. To show wealth, they’re depicting Wall Street or the class system in Britain. All those things exist but I am using my palette as an artist to pick them out and tell stories.
I tell them through the prism of Charles Dickens and using colour, or the reference of iconic photos from the 70s and 80s boom and bust politics referencing Mitch Epstein and Chris Killep’s work. By making those references, I say, in effect, that we are still there. Wealth and inequality is still there. All the research tells us that being wealthy is not just bad for poor people, it is also bad for rich people because it creates fear, increases crime and reduces happiness. It impacts everyone in negative ways. I’m trying to make a particular statement. I did 10 years at art school and didn’t train as a journalist and I don’t think I’d be a good one. As an artist I have the luxury of time. I can work over several months on a project whereas journalists have to grab an article within a day.
11. You are based in London. When shooting Here is London in December 2011 to January 2012 for the New York Times, what did you find out about your city?
I was born in London but my Dad ran pubs and clubs so we moved around a lot and always seemed to be moving. When I did that project, I’d been living away from London for about 15 years. I was based in Glasgow so it was a chance to rediscover London for me because it had changed so much. I didn’t go back to familiar places like Brixton, where I used to live as a student at Goldsmiths. For the project, I stayed at LSE which was cheap and I worked through from 1st December till mid-January and just searched for places that fitted my agenda. I searched for the extremes of London life; traditional and contemporary, establishment and social movements like Occupy London, I scoured rich and poor and black and white communities.
One of the great things about photo books is that you have the ability to sequence images and play with the juxtaposition of one image to another. You can find similar colour palettes or expressions but with a completely different context; city traders in one and a group of kids round a fire in the other. Juxtaposition is one of the best tools that artists have. There are no transparent windows onto the world, you are always trying to frame your own story in your own way. It doesn’t mean it’s not a truth. I always try and tell a truth to help someone in some way. I’m in a particularly privileged position and I think that artists have an ethical responsibility to chip away against social injustices. If you don’t, then I think you’re doing something wrong. Otherwise, we’re all going to hell in a hand basket!
Creative Arts Social is a not for profit organization. We believe that art is for everyone. We all have the creative potential to understand, connect with and benefit from the arts. For more information about the work we do here.