See: Documentary Blog: Paul Reas

The work of Paul Reas has resonated with me for some time, and considering artists who have explored themes of consumerism, I immediately thought of his series I Can Help (1988). Rod Jones links Reas’ work both visually and thematically with that of Paul Graham, Martin Parr and John Davies who were also concerned in the 1980s with “charting the postmodernist or late capitalist transformation of Britain with varying degrees of detached objectivity, horrified fascination or angry commitment.” (Reas, 1988: 5) However, he sees Reas’ work as going beyond and underneath this to engage with a more “determinative level of reality” using constructed narrative within and between the photographs to overcome the “familiar if limited conventions of liberal humanist documentary photography.” (Reas, 1988: 5)

Reas describes the political drive to make I Can Help in impassioned terms which encapsulate the specific moment in British history when the photographs were made. The neoliberal policies of Thatcher’s Conservative government meant that the 1980s saw deregulation of the banking system meaning credit was easy to come by: “faith in a free market economy and a firm belief in individualism turned British culture from a ‘we’ to a ‘me’ generation.” Easy credit led to a rapid rise in consumer spending and this growth in consumption and the effect it had on changing British culture is Reas’ overriding concern in the series:

“The then new shopping malls, situated on the edge of cities, were the new cathedrals of consumption, and the ‘new’ retail parks,’ with their supermarkets and furniture stores were the parish churches. Shopping and the purchasing of an off-the-shelf lifestyle were becoming new leisure activities.” (Reas, 2018: 110)

Reas’ position is firmly, and overtly, anti-consumerist. It is a position I can identify with, but I Can Help is a work that is very much of it’s time and a response to a rapidly changing political and economic landscape. Consumerism has now firmly become the reality of late capitalist everyday life, not everything about it is negative but its influences are impossible to escape – even taking an anti-consumerist stance show this. I wonder how Reas would approach the subject today (the problem I am wrestling with for my Body of Work) has his position softened or become more entrenched?

Stylistically I Can Help inspires because of the way Reas both adopts and rejects notions of documentary realism to create a series that Val Williams describes as being “constructed from the ‘real.'” and “raw and performative.” (Reas, 2018: 103) Reas exploited the energy and primary colours he witnessed in the supermarkets, fast food restaurants and furniture showrooms he photographed: 

“Meat, red, signs that screamed offers, exhausted patrons, the brightness of flash illuminating scurrying customers – ‘I Can Help’ was brazen and without the irony or the whimsy that Reas had kicked against withing the new British photography of the late 1970s and early 1980s.” (Reas, 2018: 103-4)

Although I stand by my assertion that the world of today is barely recognisable to the one Reas shows, there may be more similarities than I initially thought. At the time of writing Britain is facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis that is likely to have far reaching consequences and could change our relationship to consumerism and consumption forever. This both fascinates, terrifies and fills me with rage – perhaps this feeling similar to those that motivated Reas and I should embrace this and let it feed my work?

© Paul Reas (reproduced with permission)
© Paul Reas (reproduced with permission)
© Paul Reas (reproduced with permission)
© Paul Reas (reproduced with permission)



Andreasson, K. (2014) Paul Reas’s best shot: a dad buying army wallpaper for his son. The Guardian, 12th March 2014. At: (accessed 22nd April 2018)

Chandler, D. (2014) Paul Reas: Elephant and castle. Photoworks issue 10. At: (accessed 22nd April 2018)

Lubbock, T. (1993) The Broader Picture/The Vision Thing. The Independent 24th April 1993. At: (accessed 22nd April 2018)

Reas, P. (1988) I Can Help. Manchester: Cornerhouse publications.

Reas, P. (1993) Flogging a Dead Horse: Heritage Culture and its Role in Post-industrial Britain. Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications.

Reas, P. (2018) Fables of Faubus. London: Gost Books.