Niall McDiarmid – Town to Town

I don’t read or watch the news any more. Somewhere along the way the news media lost their integrity and reduced the world to an endless cycle of win-lose conflicts between extremists. When I was a kid newspapers printed one edition a day and there were four news bulletins – morning, lunchtime, early evening and late evening. Time and space were limited, valuable, so editors had to think carefully about which stories to cover. Journalists had to make phone calls, talk to people, write up stories – they had to do journalism.

Now? With 24/7 news channels and newspapers reduced to mere websites with near endless pages, discernment or editorial judgement is no longer required. News organisations could use all that available time and space to dig deeper, to widen their outlook on the world, but that would take time, and money. Easier to fill the space with celebrity gossip and the latest Twitter spat. That brings in the numbers and numbers bring in advertising and advertising bring in money which, ultimately, is what it is all about.

The news media inhabit an alternative reality, where the 2 percent of Twittering fanatics are representative of the nation, where every social or political issue is reducible to either / or or them / us. And if at times it seems like our societies have taken leave of their senses then the news media is culpable of driving that process.

All of which is a rather long introduction to a photobook review. The connection being that photobooks can tell us a lot more about our societies and their people, can portray the irreducable complexity of society in a way that the news media are no longer able, or willing, to do.

In the UK context, which is the one I am most familiar with, I think of Mahtab Hussain whose photography project, You Get Me?, documenting the lives of young British Muslim men was published a couple of years ago. Hussain described the series as “an intimate portrait on negotiating masculinity, self-esteem, social identity, and religion in a multicultural society faced with high unemployment, discrimination in the workplace, and racism”. At the same time he noted that his subjects “identify with Britain and they have a strong sense of Britishness”. (In fact, research published in 2014 showed that British citizens of Pakistani origin have a stronger sense of British identity than any other group.)

I also think of the recently published work by Chris Steele-Perkins, The New Londoners, which I am patiently waiting on arriving. Steele-Perkins photographed 165 families in London who between them represent more that 200 countries, and emphasising again the wonderful complexity of society that defies the reductionist and divisive vision of the news media.

And then there is Niall McDiarmid. Town to Town collects some of the pictures McDiarmid took as part of a project to create a portrait of contemporary Britain. McDiarmid, Scottish but based in London, started out in his adopted city but then started travelling across Britain: ““I’d search for cheap tickets available online and catch a train out of London early every Saturday. Then, because it’s expensive to stay away, I’d come back on a really late night train crawling into London after a day somewhere up North.” He ended up visiting over 200 towns, wandering the streets and approaching random people who caught his eye.

McDiarmid wanted his street portraits to have a distinctive style and he defines that style as focusing on colour, shape and pattern. His use of colour is particularly striking. Not just in the bright, vivid colours of many of his diverse subjects but also in the way McDiarmid photographs them against backgrounds that echo these. This is real Britain beyond the warped world of the news media and the 120 pages of this book will show you more about Britain than the endless pages of dross that fill the news websites.

The book itself is published by RBB Photobooks and the quality of the binding, the paper and the reproductions is excellent. There are no introductory essays, no attempts to shape or steer the viewer’s encounter with the image. There isn’t even a blurb about the photographer. It’s all about the images. Originally published in 2018 it’s starting to get a little harder to find now and no doubt will be out of stock everywhere very soon.

LINKS

There is also a video of McDiarmid in conversation with fellow photographer Daniel Meadows during preparations for the opening of the ‘Town to Town’ exhibition. (For some reason the YouTube video will not embed but the link will take you there.)