Daniel Meadows is an award winning documentarist. He has spent a lifetime recording British society, challenging the status quo by working in a collaborative way to capture extraordinary aspects of ordinary life, principally through photography but also with audio recordings and short movies.
24 February 2016
Daniel Meadows: The hard part about making media isn’t the technology. It’s deciding what you want to say, who you’re going to say it to and how you’re going to say it.
I’ve always liked photographers who can open a magic door and take you off to some other space, like Bill Brandt (1904-1983) who used his camera as a passport to slip between the social classes.
A magic door opened for me when I discovered the camera’s capacity for time travel. In the ‘nineties I re-photographed some of those I had first photographed during my journey around England twenty-five years before, in the Free Photographic Omnibus.
Now I’m revisiting a project I did when I was a student in Manchester in 1972, some portraits I made in Moss Side when it was being redeveloped, documenting residents before they were moved out of their homes.
23 August 2016
Veronica Thompson: I was at work and a friend phoned. She said: “You’re on this website, you and Sharon.” And she sent me a screenshot. And it was me and Sharon and, well, that was it for the rest of the afternoon. I was showing everyone, all my colleagues. I got so emotional I just couldn’t work, I even went to my boss. Because I still work in Moss Side, I was like: “Yes, I’m an original Moss Side girl!” Where I work is not far from where we lived back then, 50 Wellington Road. Sharon lived nearby on Crosscliffe Street.
Sharon Richards: Veronica’s mum and my mum were best friends all their lives. And then we became best friends. And we still are best friends.
Veronica Thompson: I just found it so touching that somebody we don’t know was able to capture the beginnings that we can remember of our friendship. And nothing can match that because you don’t know us, we don’t know you at all and there was this photograph and I’m, like… wow!
Carolyn: You often say that you are obsessed with story-telling. But I find when I ask people about their story, they’ll say they haven’t got one. So how do you get to a place where people will tell their story?
Daniel: For me it’s always come out of pictures. I mean I started practically, my own practice as a storyteller began through photographing people – people would tell you stuff. And all of this went in, but really what you were concentrating on was the picture. But then I was always keen to show people the pictures that I’d done of them so I could then sit down with them and they could then talk to me around the photograph, and so sometimes when you have this third object – there’s you, the person that you’re photographing – it can all be a bit tense. “Oh I haven’t got a story. Oh don’t talk to me I’m not interesting. Talk to them they are interesting”. Always the idea that the story is somewhere out there, that you aren’t part of it. But if you have the photograph, then you can talk about that, and suddenly things ping out of the image. So that’s how my own practice started really – it was listening to people talking about the pictures that I’d taken of them and starting to make recordings of those conversations.
Carolyn: You are famous for the PhotoBus. Tell me about your bus.
The bus was sort of an extension of something else. I ran a free studio in Manchester in Moss Side – a big inner city area being demolished. Communities were being broken up, Irish, African Caribbean, Polish – and it seemed to me that I needed to find a way of being able to meet the people who live there on equal terms. Because the place was being demolished you could rent property very very cheaply, I lived there on the corner of Whalley Range, so I rented a little barber shop and operated it as a free studio, and the idea was that people could come to ME there and have their picture taken, then you also had more than one opportunity to meet them because they came back to collect their picture. And I loved this sort of interaction, the theatre of that, the intimacy of that. That you had a place where people could come and chairs and you sit down and you can look at the pictures and so on.
Then I bought a bus- the bus was really was just the shop, but on wheels. My idea was to try to see what England looked like at the time when I left college – 1973 1974. I had this incredible curiosity about the world around me using Brandts camera as a passport to move between the social classes, and taking the shop and putting it on wheels round the country, and running free studios and meeting lots of people in lots of different towns. At the time the Arts Council was just starting to be interested in sponsoring photography, so it was a match-funding thing. In modern terms I crowd funded the first 750 quid and got the second from the Arts Council. I wrote ten letters a day for months until I got my 750 quid from businesses and regional arts associations. All sorts. Donations. Contributions.
Carolyn: So that’s how you made things happen then. How do you think it’s different now?
I’m 64 and I started when I was 18, and the digital age came in 1994 with the invention of the firewall standard, which basically meant that you no longer needed an industrial model of access to the kit in order to be able to mix still pictures with sound and produce something. You could do it in a computer on a kitchen table if you wanted and it turned the whole practice, everything, upside down. So I had – half my career was in analog processes where the door was closed to us. My generation – we weren’t going to be Don Mccullins and Bruce Davidsons and Bert Hardys. Those magazines that employ those people weren’t going to employ us because they were shrinking – and these old men were still there! There was no way in for us, so we had to invent our own alternative practices to function.
So there has been a massive change in my lifetime. But I think the same thinking of having an alternative way of making media is very important for young people today, as it was when I was young. You’ve got to be as creative about how you fund your storytelling activity and how you find an audience for it as you are about the making of the stories themselves.
Young people coming out of college are not gonna be working in television. Mainstream television is massively shrinking and yet there are You-Tubers who sit in their bedrooms with their video cameras and reach huge audiences, bigger than television industries, without all that industrial garbage around them. They have found a business model for them to be able to survive and function. So I think there are many similarities between the old world that I come from and the new world that young people are entering.
Carolyn: How do you think stories, audiences, and even the content of your work change over time?
Do you want me to tell the Florence story? Ok, Florence Alma Snoad is a cleaner and a life model, she’s Anglo Indian. She came to have her portrait done in Southampton on the bus, the free photographic omnibus, in 1974. And the police wanted to move me on and so I didn’t say to everyone come back tomorrow and collect your picture I said give me your address and I’ll post it to you. So years later when I thought I might revisit some of the people that I’d photographed on the bus at random, back 25 years previously, I went through the negative sheets and out dropped this page of addresses. One of which was Florence. So to cut a long story short I eventually found Florence and re-photographed her and published the pictures and a long chapter about her in my book ‘The Bus’ that was published in 2001.
This book was reviewed widely, curiously it was reviewed in Slovenia – don’t ask – and the national newspaper there DAILO ran the pair of pictures of Florence now and then, 25 years apart, you know that size probably – quite small – bigger than postage stamps but small, and black and white and a bit fuzzy. Time passes, I get an email from a poet in New Zealand who says he’s bought the book and he’s read the chapter on Florence and he’s very touched by Florence and he thinks that Florence would enjoy my book – his book that is – of poems, and would I give his book to Florence? Florence came to visit me here at my home with her daughter, who’s about my age now, so Florence is a woman in her later 70s, and I gave Florence David’s book and again – time passes. I get an email from David saying that he is suffering from Florence deprivation cos she won’t reply to his letters any more – and I reply saying well, she’s getting pretty old and you know, her memories going a bit, and she’s probably got other things to worry about.
He then emails me saying “I’ve done a Google search and I’ve found on a website in Germany, a reference to a piece of music by a composer called Brina Jez Brezavscek, of Slovenian origin, called ‘Florence Alma Snoad” – what is this piece of music?” Anyway eventually, again – to cut a long story shot, I contact Brina Jez and say why did you write this piece of music – and can you send me a copy? And so she sends me an audio disc with this piece of music on it and she says I just came across this photograph in a newspaper in Slovenia in 2001 and I thought I really am so touched by this woman and these pictures. And she was so touched she had to write a piece of music. So then I can play the piece of music to Florence – which she loves of course! And then I made a little film that tells all of that story.
But that’s not the end of Florence. She’s still alive. I saw her only last autumn, yeah. You know, these relationships kinda go on and on and develop in a magical – and also what I love about that story is that it’s a story of the internet, you know like when I photographed her in 1974 we hadn’t even conceived of the internet, and here we are in 2016 telling the story about how images and sounds and music moves all around the world in the internet, and that people communicate with each other in ways that we could never even dream of. I always get a nice Christmas card, email Christmas cards, from both David in New Zealand and Bring Jez in Slovenia. So we’re all still in touch, and we’re all brought together in this fantastic way through storytelling and pictures – that’s what I love about it.
Carolyn: How would you describe your relationship with the internet and with the new tools available to photographers?
I think the problem that we have now is the exact opposite of the problem that I had when I started. When I started, getting hold of the tools was really hard and learning how to use them was really hard. You had to learn all about the chemistry of photography. You had to learn about the physics of optics. Now you just pick up a mobile phone hit the go button. You haven’t a clue how it’s working, I haven’t a clue how that works. But it makes the most fabulous pictures, and isn’t that brilliant? So we’ve got millions of pictures being taken. Fantastic. But the problem is that our ability to make images and sounds has outstripped our ability to know what to do with them.
If you go and buy a digital camera now and just start shooting off lots of pictures all of the issues to do with why you’re doing it, who’s going to look at it, what story does it tell, how does it reach an audience – all of these things don’t go through your head because you’re just glad to be shooting pictures. But actually that’s the heart of it all.
My message for the modern generation would be: before you take a picture think about what you’re trying to take it of. Why you’re trying to take it. Who do you want to show it to? How are you going to edit it? If you’re going to tell a story, how do you sequence those pictures? And then what form are you going use- a printed publication, a film. How long is that film going to be?
The thing I love about digital storytelling is that it can be a very elegant form. If you limited yourself to 250 words in 2 minutes and a dozen pictures, then the restrictions allow for enormous freedom. Just the same way as when you write a postcard you know you can’t write more than – well I supposed if you’ve got very very tiny handwriting – but you’re not going write more than about 110 words on the back, you only have one picture on the other side, and an address! You know who your audience is because you’re posting it to someone, you know how you’re going get it there because you put a stamp on it, you know what you’re trying to say, and you know that you’ve got to say it succinctly, and then you’re choosing a picture to put it with. It’s the perfect model for a multimedia form. I would always start with a kind of multimedia postcard and then develop from there. Basically I’ve never grown out of it, making multimedia postcards.
At the beginning of the digital age the thing that excited me was the fact that you could publish stuff on the internet without having to get ‘permission’ from some kind of publisher or a news organization. You could just have your own website and you could stick stuff on it. This was terrific.
My ambition then was to try to help people to tell their own stories. To take this collaborative activity that I’d always been doing but to turn it into a kind of workshop activity, where you could help people to handle all these new tools and show how editing was at the heart of storytelling, and help people to learn some of those skills of script writing and recording their voices – and then being able to edit the sound and then being able to choose pictures.
This was in the noughties before the coming of YouTube and modern smart phones with their ready video recording facility. It’s only, you know, 10 -15 years ago but still the dark ages as far as the younger generation are concerned. We ran this project called BBC Capture Wales where we took a van round the country and ran workshops and made lots and lots and lots of these little 2 minutes of stuff. And of course, this means that you have to teach people about form.
And so I believed in my sort of pompous puritanical way that if we went round Wales in our van and we taught people these things then out of Wales we’d have a nation of storytellers all making this beautiful form. This two-minute digital storytelling form. But of course, you know, eventually after 7 years the BBC tired of it and by then we had YouTube and we had smart phones and we now had this just kind of thunder storm of stuff being generated and the meaning of what a photograph is and how it tells a stories with it is now being lost just in the mess of it all.
Carolyn: how do you think the political context for making photographs has changed since the 1970s and 1980s?
I’m incredibly angry at the moment about the way in which the public sector’s been slowly dissolved by a government that’s hell bent on shrinking it, and in the process picking off cultural gems all over the country. Public libraries are closing down, our museums are being closed down, Birmingham central library, which has 3 million images and is part of the national collection now has no curator or archivist of photography. None. The National Media Museum is in the process of doing exactly the same, whilst spinning it all as being “our wonderful art collection’s all moving to the V&A, and we’re gonna have this fabulous technology gallery in Bradford.” In fact, what they’re actually doing is tearing apart their photographic collection. It’s shocking, it’s disgraceful that our national collections of photography are not being respected and looked after. And I do point the finger at the government because they could do something about it, it’s small beer in the scheme of things.
Fox Talbot invented photography. He was British. I’m not being overpoweringly patriotic or anything here but if Fox Talbot had been American they would have built “the Fox Talbot Foundation” which would be as big as Trump towers and millions of people would visit it every year. Fox Talbot invented the negative positive process- infinite reproducible from a single negative. He did that in 1839, 1840 and we have a lot of early Victorian work and a massive collection of later photography and it’s scattered about the country and it’s shocking the way it’s not looked after and how we don’t celebrate it.
So yes, I’m angry about that but that in a way is sort of emblematic of how our establishment in Britain is not really interested in nurturing the language of its people. This is potentially a fantastic new democratic time in storytelling. We should be teaching basic video editing, basic storytelling in pictures. We should be teaching people how photography, film and the television all function and their histories. We should be teaching it to them in primary school because these are the tools through which all communication are done and if people don’t understand how editing is used to manipulate the story then we’re gonna have a society where governments are gonna get away with constantly telling us the way a story is from their own point of view without that ever being challenged. And that’s why editing is important because if we’re gonna have a proper democracy then the voice of the people has to be heard and the new tools for hearing our voice are these tools of photography film and audio recording. And if we don’t teach these things then we are behaving in an anti democratic way and I believe that we’re on the edge of being that kind of nasty society.
[And in this context], Knowle West Media Centre is a kind of miracle in its own extraordinary way because it’s managed to survive and does function. You asked me what I would do – what I would do would be to try to make certain that there were more Knowle West Media Centers around the place.