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 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.
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.
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’ 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.