Black and white photo of a group of young adults sat on a grassy mound in front of rows of houses

A new book documents Britain’s overlooked histories

In his book This Was Then, Mike Abrahams mixes portraiture and architecture photography as he explores everything from state oppression in Northern Ireland to poverty and disenfranchisement in Glasgow

Mike Abrahams is a British photographer best known for his documentary work on the lives of ordinary people. During his 50-year career, he has travelled all around Britain photographing working class communities in an attempt to memorialise their experiences, but it is in Liverpool specifically – where he is from – that some of his most important work has taken shape.

Growing up in the city, Abrahams quickly took to photography as a way of “exploring” Liverpool’s different neighbourhoods. His time spent with the ambulance service, when he was 19, gave him further insight into the surrounding area, and it was during this time that he discovered his first proper subject: the last houses to be occupied in streets that were condemned for demolition. He recalls his initial encounters with these homes as “shocking”, and he was so moved by the experience that he later returned with his camera to document them.

Black and white photo of a person peering through a dusty window, their reflection cast in a cracked piece of mirror resting on one of the panes
Top: Ford Estate, Birkenhead, 1981; Above: Glasgow, 1986
Black and white photo of a smiling young adult with braided hair standing backstage as a person at the front of the stage performs to a crowd
Brockwell Park, London, 1978

This was the early 1970s, and over the course of the next 30 years, Abrahams continued to photograph the ups and downs of British society, with a particular focus on the years during and following Margaret Thatcher’s time in government. Recently, these photographs have been turned into a book titled This Was Then, which brings together much of Abraham’s work between 1973 and 2001.

Speaking on his practice during this time, Abrahams writes in the book’s introduction: “I realised early on that there was no such thing as a neutral observer. How I saw the world was coloured by the things that had moulded me. What I was interested in exploring always moved me. I was not interested in the fact that people threw stones, only in why they threw them. I want viewers to ask the same questions.”

Black and white photo of three children lying down on a pavement, with two children leaning against a house, in a hilly terraced street
Blackburn, 1985
Ardoyne, Belfast, 1989

In This Was Then, Abrahams trains his lens on a wide range of subjects, from state oppression in Northern Ireland to poverty and disenfranchisement in Glasgow. The images are shot exclusively in black and white, with Abrahams crediting this decision to his adolescent years in Liverpool, during which time he was surrounded by a city that, he felt, was “absent of colour”.

As such, his photography is similarly monochrome, lending his work a timeless feel, but also unifying the people he photographs, regardless of the setting. “Whether I was in Glasgow or Blackburn, Bradford or London, the Kent coalfields or Belfast, people shared many common experiences,” he notes in the book.

“Even though I have been privileged to travel widely with my camera, it is the lives that I have been able to document in Britain that hold the greatest significance for me,” he writes in This Was Then.

Black and white photo of a group of men sat on rows of chairs watching a television set in what appears to be a prison hall
Pentonville Prison, London, 1984
Black and white photo of troops holding guns walking marching through a wet street
Belfast, 1987

Mixing portraiture with occasional architectural photography, the work in This Was Then seeks to provide a raw account of the lives of people who have been historically overlooked.

Though Abrahams is forthcoming in admitting his biases, and though no image can be considered truly objective, there is a recurring sense of candidness in the photographs. These are stories without embellishment – portrayals of people and events that are as true to life as can be. As such, they serve as important points for reflection, helping us to look back as a nation at our history.

“Fifty years on, lives have been lost, situations have changed, governments have come and gone,” writes Abrahams. “New generations have benefited from change, good that was done has been undone, the pains and struggles of the past have been embedded in the identities of the next generation. The specific reasons for taking each photograph have become less relevant, but we are left with a record of lives lived.”

Black and white photo of a child peering underneath a net curtain through a window that looks out onto a dishevelled yard
Strabane, West Tyrone, 1990

This Was Then by Mike Abrahams is published by Bluecoat Press;