The War at Home

Aitken, John orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-7261-1332 and Brake, Jane (2016) The War at Home. In: Photography & the Left, June 16th & 17th 2016, Lisbon. (Unpublished)

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The reform of cities spaces and housing has been a key issue with campaigners on the left for more than a century. These campaigns have found allies in the work of socially committed photographers from Jacob Riis at the turn of the twentieth century to Margaret Morton and Camilo Jose Vergara today. Globally the current phase of neo-liberalism has brought its own issues to the city as ‘regeneration’ strategies dispossess the urban poor in areas that are potentially lucrative to real estate development. In this process known as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ large profits are accumulated in the process of dispossessing people of their land, rights and homes.

Central to the theoretical component of this paper, is an interrogation of contemporary ideas on the production and photographic representation of urban space. The research hence questions photography’s ability to make ‘legible’ the key drivers of today’s emergent terrains and to visualize their connections to the networks of power and capital that articulate the current political economy (Sassen 2011:36). One strand here will be the ‘fleshing out’ of the cultural practices behind photographers mediating urban development (Jones 2013: 1.2). Alongside current corporate depictions historical precedents will be discussed. Photographers as far back as Charles Marville in Paris of the 1850’s have documented urban reconstruction (Kennel 2013). Often employed by those undertaking the demolition, these photographic images frequently suppress certain narratives of the unbuilding process. Acting as a propaganda tool they eliminate the impact on the lives of inhabitants or the economic realities driving the valorization of reconstruction schemes (James 2004). Reformist documentary images have also played their part in justifying large-scale urban reconstruction that involved the eventual displacement of existing communities (Rose 1997: Blaikie 2006).

Focusing on the gentrification of social housing in Pendleton, Salford (Greater Manchester) the presentation will explore the artists’ own work through a critical discussion, photographic images and excerpts from site writing they’ve undertaken in the area since 2004. It asks can an alternative photographic and visual strategy provide a meaningful political counter narrative to combat persuasive corporate discourses on ‘urban revitalization’? The paper will explore strategies and techniques of witnessing and ask whether these types of record can counter neo-liberal visualizations that mediate the material transformation of city areas. Can such representations begin a critical conversation about the nature of urban change and who benefits from these transformations (Wyly 2010)? Can we develop this critical photography into a type of practice that moves beyond generalisations and talks about social relations though an ‘explicit analysis of society’ (Rosler 2004:195).

John van Aitken is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader of the BA & MA routes in Photography at the University of Central Lancashire. John has an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures from Goldsmiths College, London and is currently undertaking a PhD at the CREAM Research Centre at the University of Westminster on Visualizing Capitalist Landscapes.

Jane Brake is Senior Lecturer on BA Interactive Arts and Course Leader for MA Collaborative Practice in the School of Art at Manchester Metropolitan University. Jane is a writer and artist, whose collaborative video Flying from the Ground has been screened internationally.

Together they engage in a collaborative artistic practice that involves research, fieldwork and socially engaged partnerships based around housing, contested urban space and utopian and planned environments in the UK, Eastern Europe and China. Their work is included in the book The Politics of Space and Place (Cambridge Scholars 2012).

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