In January 2021 the subject of free school meals and the Tory mishandling of this hit the news for what seemed like the umpteenth time of the Covid pandemic. However, this time it was different – rather than being about failure of the government to maintain the provision of free school meals during the holidays, quickly followed by an embarrassing U-turn, this scandal featured reports of poor quality and value food parcels being supplied to parents instead of vouchers that could be spent in Supermarkets. (These had been stopped due to a fear they were being misused by some parents and spent on alcohol and cigarettes.)
I came across the story via a twitter thread written by food writer and anti-poverty activist Jack Monroe. The writing was impassioned, angry and written from a place of personal experience – I quickly shared Jack’s anger at what was happening. There was also something that interested me from a digital/visual cultural point of view – many parents had sent Monroe photographs of the food boxes they had received. This was significant – the ability to make a visual record and provide evidence and then share this to an audience was a demonstration of changing power relationships within image making – these were real people able to make a direct challenge to the government and challenge power directly. Instinctively I saved a random selection of these images without any preconceived idea about what (if anything) I would do with them.
After a period of a couple of months I kept thinking about the story and the way it was challenged in the days afterward. Despite a public apology by Boris Johnson in Parliament, a narrative emerged refuting the documentary evidence that had been provided – accusations that the images were not accurate representations or that the food parcels were not for the number of days stated abounded. What seemed at first as a powerful example of ordinary people challenging power had been turned into something else – seemingly there had been enough doubt sown to make people question what they had seen and be taken along by narratives that attacked the poor such as they should be grateful for anything they get or that they could not be trusted to spend money responsibly which is why they had to be given food parcels. I decided to make some work that tried to redress this.
I wanted to incorporate image and text and allude to the language of photographic realism. First I converted the images to black and white and added captions selected from Jack Monroe’s Twitter thread. I also tried to a halftone effect to simulate news print but the low resolution of the images made them difficult to identify so this is not an approach I pursued:
I wanted to push the idea of image and text further and literally embed the message contained in the captions onto the images so there could be no doubt about what people were looking at. I added text over the pictures using the Mono 45 Headline font (a bold typeface that I wanted to give the impression of newspaper headlines.) I applied a difference blending mode to the text which gave an interesting effect with the words have an inverted look. I like the way this looks, although some of the text is difficult to read it is still legible – I am undecided as to whether this adds to the overall effect or not:
Next, I experimented bringing all of the images together to show the complete narrative. First, I kept each image at the size they had been when I saved them and arranged in a haphazard fashion:
Next, I applied a grid to the blank canvas to act as a guide and changed the size of each of the images to make them as consistent as possible:
Although I like the different sizes in the first attempt, neither of these really work. Perhaps if I had a set of images that were the same size this would be an approach worth pursuing.
Lastly, I experimented with some layer effects to improve the legibility of the writing. First I applied a subtle drop shadow which helped improve the definition without being too intrusive:
Next, I applied a red colour overlay at 25% opacity – the effect I was going for here was to reference red top, tabloid newspapers with the image/text being in opposition to that sort of simplistic/sensational reporting:
I have been interested in the combination of image and text for some time and this is something that was a major part of my final assignment for my previous course, Digital Image and Culture. I am not sure if this will form part of what I want to make for my BoW, but think this is something I should definitely spend some more time researching and thinking about.
As a final point, unrelated to the experiments made here but relevant to thoughts about digital/social media photography and copyright, I came across this tweet by Twitter user @RoadsideMum who was credited with sending the first, and most widely reproduced image to Jack Monroe which is credited with starting the discussion:
Although my intentions are quite different from any news outlet that has used the image(s) without permission, credit or payment it struck me that I was still complicit in taking the images without credit and wondered what anyone connected with this would think about what I had done. It struck me that this was another example of power relationships that were unequal – copyright laws only work if you have the means to be able to defend them.
Blackhall, M. (2021) ‘What am I supposed to make with this!’ Parents on schools’ meagre food parcels. The Guardian, 12th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/12/what-am-i-supposed-to-make-with-this-uk-parents-on-schools-meagre-food-parcels (accessed 25th March 2021)
Bryant, J. (2021) Give Families Cash, Not Paltry Food Parcels. The Guardian, 14th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/14/give-families-cash-not-paltry-food-parcels (accessed 25th March 2021)
Campbell, L. and Weale, S. (2021) Rashford: something ‘going wrong’ with free school meal deliveries. The Guardian, 12th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/12/not-good-enough-marcus-rashford-condemns-free-school-meal-packages (accessed 25th March 2021)
Dawson, A. P. (2021) Give families cash to feed their children – there’s overwhelming evidence it works. The Guardian, 16th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/commentisfree/2021/jan/16/give-families-cash-to-feed-their-children-theres-overwhelming-evidence-it-works (accessed 25th March 2021)
Elgot, J., Weale, S., and Butler, P. (2021) Fresh U-turn over school meals as Labour criticise guidance on parcels. The Guardian, 13th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/13/fresh-u-turn-over-free-school-meals-as-labour-criticises-guidance-on-parcels (accessed 25th March 2021)
Williams, Z. (2021) Jack Monroe on food poverty and fury: ‘I wake up, look at the news and get angry.’ The Guardian, 16th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/16/jack-monroe-on-food-poverty-and-fury-i-just-wake-up-look-at-the-news-and-get-angry (accessed 25th March 2021)