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Invisible Britain
Sé by Cian Oba-Smith

A new photo book offers a portrait of a changing and troubled Britain

Invisible Britain profiles the marginalised, misrepresented, and ignored people living in various cities around the UK

When Theresa May took to the stage, that ABBA dance still cooling on our retinas, to announce that “austerity is over” at the Conservative Party Conference this month, Paul Sng could not believe what he was hearing.

“I thought it was flippant and shallow sloganeering,” says Sng of the speech, which came as May’s party renewed its commitment to a benefits reform system its own ministers admit will make many people poorer, and flirted with a no-deal Brexit that promises ever-deeper cuts to the public sector. “How will the people who sacrificed the most for austerity – the working classes, the vulnerable, and the disabled – be any better off?”

Sng’s career as a chronicler of social injustice begins, improbably enough, with a film about a band. The London-born writer and filmmaker’s first feature, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, was a rock documentary like no other, swapping tour-bus antics for a seismic expose of Britain on the cusp of Brexit. “We wanted to meet with people in the places the band was going to on tour,” says Sng, whose film spliced footage of the Nottingham band’s bleakly comic rabble-rousing with vox-pop interviews conducted on the eve of the 2015 general election. “A lot of those communities later turned out to be places that voted for Brexit. I thought it would be interesting to see what, if anything, people were doing to fight austerity and things like the bedroom tax.”

If Sng’s film feels, in hindsight, like a premonition of Brexit, then his new photobook digs deeper into the root causes behind the vote. Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience collects interviews with 43 UK residents, each accompanied by portraits from some of the UK’s leading documentary photographers. Many of these people have been living at the sharp end of austerity. But what might have easily been a howl of despair (Sng’s working subtitle was Portraits of the Disenfranchised) instead emerges as a powerful tribute to the front lines of a grassroots resistance, from Grenfell fire survivors to women’s refuge workers.

“What comes through for me is there are so many people out there who go about their business trying to help people,” says Sng. “They don’t seek credit and they’re not out for glory or fame; they’re just doing what’s right. And I think in our society that’s refreshing to see, because you look at all these vloggers and influencers on Instagram with thousands of followers, and a lot of them are just selling products. The people of Invisible Britain are an antidote to that.”

“There are so many people out there who go about their business trying to help people... They don’t seek credit and they’re not out for glory or fame; they’re just doing what’s right” – Paul Sng


“The word ‘Islamophobia’ was something I learnt some time after 9/11. Until then, I didn’t know what it was.”

Paul Sng: “The rise of nationalism in the UK is disturbing, particularly where hate and prejudice are caused by fear, ignorance or lack of education. The influence of people like Tommy Robinson, who manipulate people by promoting Islamophobic views, should be challenged through critical debate and by sharing positive stories of Muslims like Aysha, who set up Odara, an organisation that supports vulnerable women.”


“Mental illness isn’t universal. You can’t just give somebody one thing and they feel better. Everybody has their own way of coping.”

Paul Sng: “Our curator, Laura Dicken, was instrumental to the project, and introduced me to Cian Oba-Smith’s work. Cian photographed his brother, Sé, who speaks about the tragic circumstances that led to his cousin Gregory’s suicide. Sé’s account of his cousin’s decline is a heartbreaking and unflinching critique of how the health system is failing people with mental health problems.”


“When you’re an immigrant you feel like an invisible part of Britain. Until you’re ingrained in the culture, you’re not seen or heard.”

Paul Sng: “As well as featuring a diverse range of people and views in Invisible Britain, we also wanted to work with both established and emerging documentary photographers. Rebecca Thomas was recommended to me by Dan Wood, and she instantly understood the aims and ethos of the project, as her portrait of Malgorzata, and her story demonstrates.”


“There was a family on my floor: a mum, dad, sister and two brothers. None of them made it out.”

Paul Sng: “Two of the stories in Invisible Britain are about Grenfell Tower and both of them reduced me to tears. Corinne’s story is a first-hand account of the incompetence and bureaucracy she has experienced at the hands of Kensington and Chelsea council, and reveals the appalling treatment that some survivors are being subjected to more than a year after the fire.”


“I still love Govanhill. That’s why I fight for it.”

Paul Sng: “I first met Liz in 2016 while filming my second documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle. She’s an inspiration – a bold, working-class woman who was fed up of seeing the squalid state of the streets where she grew up. Liz and others started a campaign to get local MSP Nicola Sturgeon and the authorities to clean up the area and also address problems caused by rogue landlords.”


“We don’t have to accept this attack on our living standards, we don’t have to accept the demonisation of the various minorities, be they disabled, poor, single parents, immigrants or refugees.”

Paul Sng: “I have huge respect for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and their work in defending disabled people from austerity. Karen started the Bristol branch, and we spoke on the phone for an hour about her life and how she came to be an activist later on in life.”


“Some people even say we might need a third referendum. What they really mean is we should keep voting until they get the answer they want.”

Paul Sng: “Although I disagree with Craig’s pro-Brexit views, it’s important we included his story – it would’ve been a far less interesting book if we’d only featured people whose views and politics I share. Listening to dissenting opinions is essential; we should challenge both them and our own preconceptions about people whose views we disagree with.”


“Emergency accommodation is supposed to mean anything from a week to six months. But I ended up being there for over a year.”

Paul Sng: “Housing is the most urgent social issue we’re facing right now; it’s as important as Brexit, if not more so. Nadine’s story shows how precarious housing is right now, with local communities being forced out of areas with covetable postcodes as a result of the private rental market’s inability to provide enough secure and affordable homes.”


“Where I work I see creative and socially active young people getting really pro-active, campaigning against things they don’t believe in.”

Paul Sng: “Youth centres are vital for offering young people the chance to take part in activities they may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience, especially during school holidays. Youth workers like Stewart can be positive role models for young people, and also encourage older people to understand and appreciate their value and the potential they hold to improve society.”

Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is published by Policy Press on November 1. Sng will present a series of Q&A screenings of Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain at venues across the UK in November