February 17th 2011 by Andrew S Gibson
Photojournalist Si Barber was so incensed after listening to the British Prime Minister David Cameron talk about his plans for reshaping Britain on the radio that he used the name of one of the Prime Minister’s policies – The Big Society – as the title for his self-published book.
Spanning a period of over four years, the photos in the book explore the consequences of political and economic decisions on some of the ordinary people of Britain. The collection is so compelling that it has gained the photographer commercial commissions and the opportunity to exhibit some of the photos in the UK and the United States.
The Big Society: Snapshots of 21st Century Britain
For me, one of the impressive things about The Big Society is the way that Si has quietly pursued his project and bought it to the market in the form of a self-published book. Purpose is an important part of photography and projects such as this can give you the motivation and impetus to put together a meaningful body of work.
I went to college with Si, and it’s a pleasure to see him succeed in what can be a difficult genre of photography to work in. I encourage you to visit his website, look at his work and buy his book. At only £12 a copy it costs less than most photography books in the shops and you’ll be purchasing a historic record of life in Britain in the early part of the 21st century – and helping a photojournalist fund his projects at the same time.
You’re a photojournalist. What is the motivation behind your photography – what messages are you trying to convey with your photos?
My primary interest is to provide a document that describes how my small part of the world was when I was in it.
I’m interested in the minutiae, and the minor rather than the big picture. Often the small details can comment on bigger ideas about our modes of living and of society as a whole.
Photography gathers significance over time. If you look at pictures of people from previous generations you will often see details that the history books miss. What did that tattoo mean?, Why did they dress like that? etc. I think the medium is ideally placed to act as a tool of remembering.
Specifically, I believe Britain has changed a great deal in the past few years. I think it’s become a darker place. I hope my pictures can make a record of the time.
What are your influences – who are your three favourite photographers and why do you like them?
I like pictures that present multiple meanings and can offer repeated viewings. My all time favourite photographer is Jacob Riis and his studies of the poor. They disclosed a hitherto unseen world of the victims of the industrial revolution.
In terms of modern snappers I’m currently enjoying Tim Foster’s ‘Superman’s Pockets‘ – a study of British eccentrics who adopt superhero personas eg, Anglegrinder Man or Mr Methane. Also I really like Nina Berman’s ‘Homeland‘ which is a about the militarisation of ordinary life of post 911 America.
The internet, microstock, citizen journalism, digital cameras – all have their benefits, and they are also potential threats to the livelihood of photojournalists. What changes have you seen since you started working in the field and what are the biggest challenges you face in your day to day working life?
I started my professional life shooting on negative and transparency. Although I use exclusively digital cameras for my day to day work, I still shoot on 35mm and medium format film for my personal and exhibition work. I like the idea of having a physical negative/transparency that I can refer back to and that can survive the instability of failing hard-drives and DVD back-ups.
The main changes I have noticed in the last few years is that there are now so many images out there from so many photographers that it really has become a buyers market.
Also you can get a really good digital camera for £500 and bash away with it until you get something you like. The era of the photographer as an alchemist is over. It’s all about the image now and a good thing too in my opinion. The brain is more important than the equipment.
I think the professionals who survive and thrive will be ones who can cultivate an individual style or approach.
I don’t regard technology as a threat, in fact I have had a few nice sales of work that’s been up on Flickr and other social networks, including online picture libraries. The key issue is getting buyers in front of the work which is an art rather than a science.
The Big Society
The Big Society: how did the idea for the book come about and how long have you been working on the photos that appear in it?
The Big Society is largely a collection of personal work that goes back about four years, although there is some older work in there as well. I got the idea for a publication when I was putting together some images for an exhibition and I was having trouble editing the selection down to fit the brief. Originally I was only going to produce 50 or so copies of the book to use for promotional purposes, but so many people kept asking for a copy I decided to investigate the possibility of a proper print run.
When did you first realise that you could make a book out of the photos? What steps did you have to go through to self-publish it? Did you try approaching traditional publishers first?
I spoke to a couple of photography publishers and critics who felt that the concept was too vague and nebulous to have wide appeal to the public and thereby be a commercial proposition. I also sat down with a pencil and calculator and worked out that if I went down the conventional publishing route there were so many intermediaries take a slice of the cake the photographer who initiated the work would end up with a tiny proportion of the profits!
I also discovered that some photographers pay a publisher to take on their project so it can be produced by a name synonymous with photography.
Consequently I decided to start my own publishing imprint – called Eye Ludicrous, enabling me amongst other things to purchase ISBN numbers so the work can be sold in shops, Amazon etc.
Fortunately Digital printing now means that you no longer have to physically produce and store an entire edition of 1000 books. It’s possible to produce 100 books at a time – sell them and then order another print run that can be in your hand within a couple of weeks.
The key I think is to find a sympathetic printer with who you can work.
The Big Society: How did you come up with the title, and why so political? What is the link between politics, government and the effects of the recession that you have photographed for the book?
I got the title when I was listening to the radio when Prime Minister David Cameron was describing the way he wanted to reshape Britain. I found his nostalgia for the certainties of his privileged upbringing quite sinister really. It reminded me of an Enid Blyton story. I thought if I’m going to witness his Big Society, he can see mine as well. So I sent a copy to No 10 Downing St, for his attention. I suspect I’ll be on a terrorist watch list now!
I wanted the pictures in the book show the impact of economic and ideological decisions made by people at the top and how they affect the rest of us.
What has the reaction to the book been like? Have you had much feedback?
Mostly it’s been good. It’s even got me some more commissions!
I did receive some criticism for the way the images are presented. The current fashion is to go for a full bleed off the page and to put the captions at the back. I think if I was to do it again I would probably design it slightly differently to reflect this feedback .
I was also criticised for paying a fee to the sex workers as it was assumed that it was going to be spent on drugs. I think that is a valid comment but realistically those pictures would never happened otherwise. I’m not sure what the practical difference is if the model spends their fee on heroin or a bottle of vodka.
I believe that you are exhibiting some of the photos from the book around the UK. How did the publication of the book lead to the opportunity to exhibit your work?
The book has mainly been marketed via blogs and forums on the web – I found if one person mentions it on their site you can get a lot of traffic coming to your site. Traffic converts into sales.
Also I deliberately kept the price down to £12.00 so buyers so it’s easily affordable.
Much of the work is hosted on the Flickr portal and it has been surprisingly productive for me. From this I got invited to take part in the Look2011 festival in Liverpool. One of the pics was also seen by the curator of the Edward Hopper gallery in New York who is currently hanging as part of his exhibition.
What are the key lessons you learnt from the process of publishing the book? What advice would you give someone who would like to do the same?
Unless you are only planning to produce a few copies for your own pleasure forget about the print on demand publishing companies like Blurb and find a friendly digital printer. I used MPG Biddles who are based conveniently in King’s Lynn where I live. They are specifically set up to help self-publishers and produce short print runs. They were very helpful in assisting me with the technical issues involved in taking the work from the screen to the page.
Overseeing the design and production yourself is much cheaper, more satisfying and gives you a better sense of how the work shapes up as a body.
I would tell anybody thinking of publishing to go ahead. It’s very exciting (and somewhat nerve-wracking) to stand in the printers production room watching as hundreds of copies of your photos roll of the printers!
Any more books planned for the future? If so, can you drop a hint at this stage to the theme?
I really like the idea of the book as a project but there is a lot of work involved apart from producing the pictures. Because it’s self-published I’m responsible for all the marketing, invoicing and admin! I’m going to concentrate on getting the most out of this before I start anything else.
A sample of spreads from The Big Society:
All photographs copyright Si Barber. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.