Nick Hedges’ ‘Make Life Worth Living’ exhibition at the Science Museum’s Media Space

Nick Hedges was commissioned by the housing charity Shelter to document the harsh living conditions that people in poverty were forced to live in from 1968 – 1972. The work was used to help Shelter campaign better for those in poverty. To protect the anonymity of the people depicted, the images have been used in a very limited way until now; this is the first public showing of the work since it was created over forty years ago.

make life worth living by nick hedges

Mr and Mrs M and their four children lived in a council owned house in Vincent Crescent, Balsall Heath. Apart from the poor state of the property – no bathroom, no hot water, outside lavatory, inside walls running with damp – these children were sleeping in the middle of winter, on two sodden seat cushions covered by a couple of old ‘macs’, there was no heating in the room, the snow lay thick outside and the windows were broken. Birmingham, January 1969 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Make Life worth living at the Science Museum's Media Space

Make Life worth living is on display at the London Science Museum’s Media Space.

Make Life Worth Living is the most moving exhibition I’ve ever viewed. I’ve been to exhibitions that show conflict but I have to say I found this work far more upsetting. Usually with war photography you have a sense of distance, places they depict look foreign to UK eyes but the imagery of this exhibition looks very familiar. The only thing that separates the exterior shots from total familiarity is the lack of cars.

make life worth living by nick hedges street scene

“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

make life worth living by nick hedges mother and child

Mrs T and her family of 5 lived in a decaying terraced house owned by a steelworks. She had no gas, no electricity, no hot water, no bathroom. Her cooking was done on the fire in the living room. Sheffield, May 1969 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

The work’s ability to move is not just down to the imagery alone but with the stories that go with the photos. Nick Hedges kept detailed notes, on the face of it some of the images can seem quite ordinary. One of the photographs was of a family with five children in a grubby looking room, it’s only when you read the caption that you realise how desperate things were: “I took the pictures at night in the shell of a house. It was a horrifying place. When the Shelter report was published in September, a television crew went round to film the house and were met at the door by two little coffins leaving. The two youngest children had died from enteritis.” It really bought it home to me when I thought that the two deceased children would have been roughly ten years older than me. Other captions speak of permanently flooded rooms and people sleeping with the lights on so that rats did not come.

make life worth living by nick hedges

Children living in substandard property, Birmingham Balsall Heath, June 1969 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

make life worth living by nick hedges housing minister

“It’s disgusting and appalling. The Housing Minister (Peter Walker) came round here and said it wasn’t fit for human habitation, and I’m still here.” Mrs Chichockjy, Liverpool 8, July 1971 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

You might think that the exhibition would give you a sense of hope as it looks back on how bad things where, but according to Nick Hedges the poverty gap is just as big today as it was back then. You can draw strong comparisons between Nick Hedges’ work and Jim Mortram’s contemporary work which documents people living in poverty in rural Norfolk. If you find this type of documentary photography interesting I recommend you take a look at Jim’s Small Town Inertia project. There is also a book entitled ‘Make Life Worth Living’ that accompanies the exhibition, as far as I can tell it’s only available from the Science Museum and £2 from every copy goes to Shelter.

make life worth living by nick hedges rats in the house

Mr and Mrs Gallagher lived with their 4 children in a ground floor tenement flat. Their bedroom was covered in pools of rainwater. At night they sleep with the light on to keep the rats away. One night they counted 16 rats in the room. Glasgow Maryhill, October 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

‘Make Life Worth Living’ is at the Science Museum until 18th January 2015. Update: the exhibition has now been extended until the 1st of March 2015 which means it is now running along side ‘Drawn By Light’ which I recently wrote about. The Science Museum has recently become a bit of a mecca for photography as it currently has an another exhibition ‘Open For Business’ which I also wrote about. Both exhibitions are free to enter.

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9 Responses to Nick Hedges’ ‘Make Life Worth Living’ exhibition at the Science Museum’s Media Space

  1. Becky says:

    Thank you for sharing this, hearing breaking. Photography is powerful.

  2. claire buckle says:

    Have just come home from seeing this exhibition. I realise, ironically, what a ‘sheltered’ life I led as a child. I was 11 years old in 1969 and had no idea that people lived in such dreadful conditions. The photographs are among the most memorable I have seen in any exhibition. I would be interested to know if any of the subjects in the photos have come forward and made themselves known – what was their story after the photographer left, where are they now? Fascinating yet heartbreaking stuff. I came away changed and just wish I could travel in time to the late sixties, donate to Shelter and help those specific people in those impossible situations.

    • lomokev says:

      It is pretty shocking, I was at the press launch of this exhibition and someone asked Nick Hedges about poverty now and he said that he believes if anything things have got worse. Since the 60s the wealth gap between the middle class and people in poverty has got worse, so while they are in better conditions relative to use they are not. The current housing crises is not helping either. So if you would of donated to shelter then you may was well do it now to.

  3. sheila mannion says:

    i lived though this era in Hulme Manchester and it was horrible as a child but we didn’t know any better we had nothing and I mean nothing but our neighbours and friends ,….. we have a site on facebook and we have all contributed to our photo collection of our time in the fifties sixties in old Manchester on there , there are some fantastic pictures of all the familys that lived there from births to weddings and funerals and we are all still pals.Shool in them days was very poor the buildings were old but we were looked after whilst there.i could go on and on ….enjoyed looking at these pics brought memories back.
    Sheila.

    • lomokev says:

      What’s the address of your facebook page I’d be really interested to see those photos? There was a book produced from this exhibition, you should try and track it down.

  4. Debby says:

    I’d love to know if you are able to buy copies of these photos as some of them are of my husband’s family

    • lomokev says:

      If that’s the case I would get in touch with the photographer as I am sure you would like to here from you. There is also a book of these photos as well. Is you husbands photo in this blog post?

  5. Kerry Pender says:

    I am wondering if you have Nick Hedges contact details

    • lomokev says:

      I am afraid I don’t I only met him briefly at the exhibition opening. Try getting in touch with the Shelter Charity as he works with them, they should b able to get you in touch.

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