Tish Murtha’s extraordinary documentation of Newcastle’s unemployed youth sparked a debate in Parliament – almost 40 years on, we speak to the photographer’s daughter about their legacy
Extraordinary photos taken by working-class photographer Tish Murtha (1956–2013) almost 40 years ago show the startling effects of mass youth unemployment in some of the most deprived areas of Britain. As Thatcher’s new government policies began to take hold, the North of England was badly affected by the closure of many industrial factories, leaving young people with little alternative option but to end up on the dole.
Murtha returned to Newcastle after a stint at photography school, to document intimate scenes of daily life in Youth Unemployment (1981) which involved the marginalised people she grew up around. The radical photos even triggered a debate in the House of Commons, which highlighted the failure of the government's earlier Youth Opportunities Programme to provide meaningful work for young people. At the time, over three million people in Britain were unemployed – the highest figure since the 1930s Great Depression.
The overwhelming sense of youth alienation and despair is evident in the photos, but their gritty social realism nonetheless includes occasional glimpses of hope, innocence and even vitality.
Young kids run amok among the derelict terraces, giving us a unique view of a dystopian wonderland among the fag-ends and broken windows. Throughout all this, Murtha never lost sight of the real need for social change that became the driving inspiration behind her work. We chatted to her daughter Ella about her late mum’s courageous vision and unique intimacy with her subjects.
Can you shine some light on what drew Tish towards photographing marginalised subcultures in particular?
Ella Murtha: My mam’s use of photography and approach to it was based on the conviction that the fundamental value of the medium was its capacity to provide direct, accurate and vital records of the conditions, events and experiences that shape our lives.
The increased awareness fostered by thorough and pointed documentation can be a positive influence, in that it helps create the basis for facing and changing those social forces and situations which often appear inevitable. Tish believed that photography was a tool for exploring and even changing the many and varied aspects of our lives.
“Young people grew more and more frustrated, and refused to accept ... an economic system that deprived them of a productive and meaningful future” – Ella Murtha
What relationship did she have to the subjects in the photographs? Did she spend a lot of time with them, or was it more fleeting? That said, how long did Tish spend shooting Youth Unemployment?
Ella Murtha: The people in the Youth Unemployment series were her family, friends and neighbours around her in Elswick. She returned from college in Newport with a burning desire to use the skills she had learned to effectively highlight the problems that Elswick as a community was facing. The series was shot over a few years starting in 1979 and was exhibited in 1981.
Tish's work depended on an investment of her time: she built relationships of trust that allowed her access to the different parts of the community and to individual lives. Her approach was informal, generating an understanding of what she was doing by giving copies of her photos to the people she shot.
Do you think that Tish’s photos are a response to Margaret Thatcher’s government and the changes to society she brought about during this period?
Ella Murtha: The Youth Unemployment series was definitely a response to the Thatcher government's "Free Market" philosophy. She felt this had opened up a period of bitter conflict as young people grew more and more frustrated, and refused to accept the logic of an economic system which deprived them of a productive and meaningful future.
How do you feel young people today can relate to these photos, even though these were taken decades ago. Do you think the situation itself has worsened or gotten better?
Ella Murtha: Sadly I think that there are a lot of similarities between then and now.
What was Tish hoping to show or change by taking and exhibiting these photographs?
Ella Murtha: The series was a warning that there were barbaric and reactionary forces in our society, who would not be slow to make political capital from an embittered youth.
What do you plan on doing with the photos in the Youth Unemployment series?
Ella Murtha: I am about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a book on Youth Unemployment. I have chosen the images as per selections in my mam’s notes so I am sure that she would be happy with the edit. I am planning on including her essay 'Youth Unemployment in the West End of Newcastle' along with other personal notes in the book.