Paul Graham on capturing Thatcher’s Britain

In the early 1980s, Paul Graham photographed dole offices across the UK. Originally self-published in 1985, he has worked with Mack to republish the series for a new audience, allowing the opportunity to consider the work from a modern perspective

When we last spoke to photographer Paul Graham in 2020, he talked about the process of republishing his 1981 series A1 – The Great North Road with Mack and how he wanted to create a portrait of Britain at that time. This month sees Graham go back in time again as he re-releases Beyond Caring, a series made in the waiting rooms and corridors of the social security and unemployment offices around the UK. While A1 is a cheerful exploration of roadside café culture, Beyond Caring offers a glimpse into the hard realities for many during the mid-1980s.

“It was pretty simple – I was unemployed and had to go to these offices to sign on, and was shocked by the situation I was seeing there. It was like watching an accident in slow motion,” Graham says of how the series started. “This was the prime time of Margaret Thatcher, of her fight with the unions, and she used the bludgeon of mass unemployment to secure her goals. You may agree or disagree with those, with the necessity of this conflict, but when you start putting faces, individual lives, to economic policy, it changes the perspective.” 

Top: Horse Poster, DHSS Office, Bristol, 1984. Above: DHSS Emergency Centre, Elephant and Castle, South London, 1984. All images: Beyond Caring by Paul Graham (2021). Courtesy the artist and Mack

Originally self-published in 1985, many of the photographs in the series were taken discreetly, often without looking through the lens, and this was because Graham was denied official permission to do the work. Due to the skewed angles and disorientating perspectives, the result is a series of images layered with contrasts as they feel both intimate and detached, warm and cold.

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes