- Documentary Exercise 4-5: The Ethics of Aesthetics
- Documentary A4: War Photography and Control: Vietnam to the War on Terror
Thinking about the direction of my BoW all that I can say for certain is that I want to make photographs in and around my local area. As I consider and researched influences for this approach, I remembered a series by Simon Norfolk I had seen at the Side Gallery in Newcastle some years ago. The work was of former mining areas in the North-East of England, near to where I live, and was concerned with how the landscape had changed since the closure of the pits. I was disappointed that I could not find these images online either on Simon Norfolk’s website or on the Amber website. I was pleased to get responses from both, with Side explaining that unfortunately the images had not been digitised, but that I could arrange to view them at the gallery when Covid restrictions allowed. I was thrilled that Simon Norfolk sent PDF files of the full set of images and the exhibition text and gave permission to use them here.
The series was entitled Goaf and commissioned by Side in 2010 as part of their exhibition Coalfield Stories (shown alongside work by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Sally-Ann Norman and John Davies.) ‘Goaf’ is defined with a quote from the ‘Glossary of Terms Used in the Coal Trade of Northumberland and Durham, 1849’ by G.C. Greenwell as:
"a space or void from which the coal pillars that support the roof have been removed. Eventually the pressure reconsolidates the whole, the surface subsiding."
This explanation clearly states Norfolk’s intent with the series as “resistance against Coalfield Revisionists” who seek to bury the memory of the coalfield under retail parks and two-garage luxury homes. The exhibition text ends in defiant terms:
"It's a bitter pill to swallow that not only did we lose in the defence of this industry, but that the victors get to re-wite history afterwards. And how fucking annoying is that?"
The images in Goaf are captioned using other terms from the Glossary that are equally unique, evocative and sadly lost to clear meaning. The complexity of the language use by the miners (‘pitmatic’) is likened by Norfolk to the way Eskimo’s have a number of words for snow, “there seemed to be no end to the number and subtlety of words available to a miner to describe the material they were burrowing through”. Combined with the images, this text makes clear reference to the past while allowing the present and what has happened in between to be considered simultaneously. Norfolk compared searching for evidence of the East Durham Coalfield as more akin to archaeology or forensics than photography, and, despite being told that it had all been covered up, he found evidence to the contrary:
"The East Durham Coalfield does still exist; traces and fragments of it at least. Beneath an economy of low wage/high labour-input McJobs; hidden away under strangely subsiding fields; in small jobless industrial villages in the heart of the countryside and in the dust in old men's lungs."
Most startling, is Norfolk’s likening to how any trace of the coal has been removed from the landscape to the way the Nazis tried to hide their crimes at Treblinka by dismantling the buildings and landscaping the land. It seems an extreme analogy, yet Norfolk’s argument is a compelling one that I am ultimately in agreement with:
"It's obvious why the Nazis would want to eradicate their crime, but what can explain the ruthlessness with which any trace of the East Durham Coalfield has been expunged? Only 25 years have passed since this was the mainstay of the region's economy. But when I tried to place the locations of all the pits that existed in 1945 onto modern Ordnance Survey maps, instead I found forests of shameless fast-growing conifers; suspiciously newly bulldozed landscapes (from the Tellytubbyland school of landscape design) and a host of planners, PR spokespeople, development officers and 'executive homes' salespeople who, if I mentioned the word 'coal', seemed to want to look awkwardly at their shoes and change the subject. 'Jobs' are so last century, now we have 'lifestyles.'"
When I consider Goaf, it is not just that the places shown in the images mean something to me because I recognise them, or that Norfolk’s words resonate with my own feelings, I feel a sense that being from these places I should also be doing something to record what has gone before. Almost the entire area that I live is built on the legacy of coal, and Norfolk is right when he says that there has been a concerted effort to expunge this history, or at least to look back with rose tinted glasses. Criticism about the validity of documentary photography can not bear the scrutiny of work like this (and other important work undertaken by Amber) – understanding our history is how we make sense of our present and are able to plan our future. Norfolk’s methodology and presentation are also inspiring. The images are compositionally strong and powerful on their own, but they only activate for the viewer when combined with Norfolk’s text. The images are the gateway to the context provided, which gains meaning and understanding through placement with the photographs. This work is powerful inspiration for me in so many ways with much to admire and aspire to – the research, context and images all working together to achieve something more than the sum of their parts.