Shelter at 50 – how one young photographer put the 60s housing crisis in focus

In 1968, Nick Hedges was asked by Shelter to photograph some of the families living in Britain’s slums. Here, he discusses how he documented the housing crisis as part of a five year project and helped communicate the first concerns of the charity.

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Family in kitchen of slum property, Bradford, 1969. Nick Hedges / Shelter

Nick Hedges was born in Bromsgrove in 1943 and has worked as a photographer since his first commission from Shelter in the late 1960s. His photographs for the housing charity, taken between 1968 and 1972, were recently exhibited in Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester, having been shown at the Science Museum in London in 2014. Currently, Shelter is running an appeal to trace the families featured in the pictures.

An edited version of this interview ran in CR October. As part of our series of posts on Shelter at 50 we present the full text of the conversation here.

CR: In 1968, you’d just worked on a project with Birmingham Housing Trust for your degree, which Shelter saw. What happened next – did the charity get in touch with you?

NH: I was in my final year at Birmingham College of Art and I had done an exhibition for Birmingham Housing Trust, it was my major project. When I finished the exhibition – it was then going to be shown outside – I was sitting in an empty office sticking these huge photographs onto board with wallpaper paste. This guy put his head round the door, I didn’t know who it was, he looked at the photographs and said, ‘Nice photos’ and disappeared.

It transpired he was the director of Shelter [Des Wilson] and he rang me up and said would I like to come and work doing photography and research for Shelter? I leapt at the chance.

CR: What did they ask you to do and how did the project take shape? How were things like access arranged?

NH: For reasons of convenience, and also because Shelter’s advertising agency had fairly strong directorial control over the content of the ads, they used to use ‘set-up’ photographs. I was fairly appalled about it when I went down there…. Within a month of starting work, we had a conversation and I suggested that really we should just use ‘real life’ situations…. Shelter changed its policy and so, certainly from the time I was there, we only used real life. The first job I did was back in Birmingham, where I’d come from, and I photographed a family for the Shelter fundraising newspaper.

CR: What was your approach with the commission? I imagine it had to be handled very sensitively.

NH: That’s an interesting question because in the summer between my second and third year at college, I’d read a book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and [the photographer] Walker Evans. At the beginning of it there’s a really good essay by Agee about the relationship and responsibility of writers and photographers when they’re dealing with subject matter like this.

He was talking about the 1930s in America. It burned a hole in my head … the real significance of the responsibility of what you’re doing and the need to take time and be patient, not to set things up, to allow things to develop in front of the camera. And also to be able to build up a relationship of trust and confidence.

CR: How important was talking to and getting to know your subjects before actually taking any pictures?

NH: You have to be accepted in the first place, because you’re not going to get invited in to photograph things without the family trusting the reasons why you’re doing it. Once you enter properties, [people’s] rooms, you do spend time just talking. You don’t lift cameras up immediately.

I discovered that [as] the rooms were very small and cramped – people were living in one room or a couple of rooms at most – your body position and your presence in the room was really quite significant. So I found, I just noticed one day – I [was] crouching down and making myself small, reducing my presence in the room.

That kind of body language, how you project yourself as a journalist or a photographer, is really significant. I used to use Leica cameras which were very small; I never used any flash. Literally, you reduce your presence and make yourself small – and just listen. As people talk they reveal things about themselves, which you’re able to record.

CR: How did the project affect you? Did you find it inspiring?

NH: Yes. I was about 23 or 24, I came from a fairly middle class background and the thing that struck me really significantly was the strength of many of the families that I began to meet … it made a huge impression upon me.

I remember photographing a young woman in Birmingham – her name was Greta – and I suddenly realised that she was so much more mature than myself. She was two years younger, had two kids, and was living and coping and showing a wonderful devotion to her family – and here I was sort of stumbling about.

It certainly made me realise that I was beginning to experience the kind of quality of family life which I’d not experienced before. It maintained me for the four or five years and [was] something I continually came across. It was very inspiring to watch it.

CR: Can you tell us about when you met Pauline in Whitechapel?

NH: One of the things that Shelter [did] is find different areas of the country to work in, so they could spread their message regionally, as it were. She was the first family I contacted in London and they lived behind the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the Rothschild Dwellings, which had been put up in the 1880s and 90s by the Rothschild family.

[Pauline’s] family were a typical East End family who ended up in the basement flat of one of these dwellings – there was Peggy and Vic and Pauline was the daughter. Michael was the son – two younger ones as well. Because they were living in the basement there was hardly any natural light and they were in very overcrowded conditions – no bathroom, of course, the kids got washed or bathed in the sink in the kitchen; just one cold water tap.

And I developed a really close relationship with them because I was living in London then as well and it was easy to keep in touch. On one occasion my girlfriend and I took the kids to the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park, where they released the butterflies. I remember Michael had a bad leg and I just put him on my shoulders. So we had quite a close relationship. Eventually that family got rehoused to Peterborough, I think.

CR: As a photographer, where do you see this project within your wider body of work? What does it mean for you?

NH: The [photographs] have been hugely important for me. You’ll know this; you can remember that transition from university or college and then finding your first job – and struggling to find a way of doing what you believe in. Shelter allowed me to make that transition and work on something I believed in for a five year period, right at the beginning of my career. So they’re very significant photographs for me.

CR: In Shelter’s campaign work, you notice the importance of storytelling and the power of the image. I don’t think your pictures have lost their shock value, but does image-making still have the power to shock, to move or change people?

NH: I just think it’s much more difficult now. Partly [it’s] to do with the quantity of images you mentioned. In actual fact, to establish real impact and real communication now is much harder. Back then it was easier because the material poverty was more visually evident – it’s less evident now.

There’s a difference between shooting in black and white and colour – it’s a matter of how the audience sorts out what is significant and not significant. What that comes down to is the context in which you put the photographs. Also, the time you can invest. The storytelling is very significant still, but it’s harder, I think, to establish the significance of those bits of reality. There’s much more competition in terms of what’s out there.

CR: Looking back on the work, how do you think it squares with our perceptions of the 1960s? The decade is celebrated as a time of huge social and cultural change – but there were of lot of things going on that people weren’t aware of – both at the time and now….

NH: Yes, what’s interesting is that version of history. There’s the show at the V&A at the moment [Records and Rebels 1966-1970], which is an attempt to bring together the idea that there was radical thinking in their air. It was quite a strong undercurrent when I was working – to do with desegregation in the States, the Vietnam War but it was more focussed on those big things rather than the domestic issues in our own country.

It was harder to establish the truth about the domestic situation in this country than it might have been to persuade people that the Vietnam War ought to stop. I’m not blaming The Times, the Guardian – they were the big stories.

What we were dealing with was everyday life, the tragedies that 3.5m people are living through. We were aware of it, but we were also aware you could reveal that situation and people were genuinely shocked. Shelter had an enormous response to its early campaigns in the late 60s – it grew quite quickly in its ability to raise funds for housing associations; also in terms of support groups around the country.

CR: What’s also interesting is that in 2016 the housing crisis is now front page news – that recognition of it is at least a good thing?

NH: It’s been really good…. What’s really important about Shelter’s work is its ability to affect change in terms of influencing public opinion and also legislators – changing the law and making improvements. It’s been able to do that over a long period of time.

It’s a shame that it’s necessary, but that’s what the world is like. Politics is unfortunately oblivious to some of these things, [on] both sides. Shelter’s done a great job. I was really surprised that there was a resonance that people got from these pictures, 50 years on – [but] it seemed to tie in with the housing crisis that exists today.

More of Nick Hedges’ work is featured on the Shelter at 50 website, shelterat50.org.uk. Our look at Shelter’s communications and campaign work since 1966 is here.

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