Interview: Paul Sng and Jen Corcoran | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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British social documentary and activist photographer Tish Murtha grew up in Elswick in Newcastle upon Tyne. After finding a camera in an abandoned house as a child, she went on to document the lives of working-class people through striking black and white photographs that exposed the societal inequality and the impact of Thatcher-era deindustrialisation in the North of England, as well as looking at the lives of sex workers in Soho. Sadly, despite early acclaim for her work, Murtha was unable to make a living from photography and died in poverty.

Modern Films presents a moving tribute to Tish Murtha in a feature documentary TISH, which premiered at Sheffield DocFest and was released across UK and Ireland on 17th November. The film, supported by BFI Doc Society Fund and Screen Scotland, was directed by Paul Sng and produced by Jen Corcoran. It tells Tish’s story via a series of intimate conversations conducted by Murtha’s daughter Ella and her powerful motivations and political views are brought to life through her diary entries, letters and various writings, narrated by Maxine Peake, and accompanied by a patchwork of photographs.

There’s a special Q&A screening of TISH at Star & Shadow cinema on Friday 26th January as well screenings at ARC Stockton from 8th December.

We catch up with Paul and Jen to find out more about the film and Tish Murtha’s extraordinary life…

Where did the inspiration to make a film about Tish Murtha’s life come from?
Paul Sng: It would be glib to say ‘the photographs’ but that’s where it started. From there, I learned more about Tish via the website that her daughter, Ella, set up, and then the Youth Unemployment book, which has Tish’s now seminal essay to accompany the photographs. Reading that inspired an idea to make a film, though it would take me a couple of years to ask Ella if she wanted to collaborate on a documentary.

How did you go about researching the film and shaping its direction?
PS: The first thing Ella and I discussed was what we wanted the film to be and what we didn’t want it to be. From there we approached Jen Corcoran, who became our producer. The three of us then worked on an outline for the structure of the film, how we would tell the story. Ella was our guide, as she knew the story of Tish’s life. Together we worked out who Ella would meet and had a sense of what they might talk about, so the film really took shape once we had that plan in place.

What was the most memorable thing you took away from working very collaboratively with Tish’s daughter, Ella?
PS: The friendship. Making films is tough and sometimes there are disagreements and fallouts. But you have to stick together and get through all that. Along with Jen, the three of us made something very powerful in terms of its political message, and also very tender in terms of the film’s emotional impact. You don’t do that without love and care. The three of us were able to make a great film because we had a great care and support for one another. I think of them as older, wiser sisters (even though they’re both younger than me).

The film is narrated by Maxine Peake. How did that come about? Was she already a fan of Murtha’s work?
PS: We were in the car on the way home from a shoot and I asked Ella who would be her dream narrator for Tish. She said ‘Maxine Peake’ and I was thinking of suggesting her, as we’d previously worked together on Dispossession and she is a brilliant actor who shares very similar politics to Tish. I sent her a text and she replied within minutes to say ‘Yes, it would be an honour.’ And she did a brilliant job, by turns thoughtful, fierce and playful. We were very happy that Maxine played Tish, there’s no one else we would have rather worked with.

What is your favourite Tish Murtha piece and why?
PS: It’s a tie-break between Kids jumping onto mattresses and Karen on overturned chair. ‘Mattresses’ was the first Tish Murtha photograph I ever saw. It reminds me of my childhood and a group of boys who used to pull a similar trick (I was always too scared). The boy jumping is Tish’s younger brother, Glenn, and the boy behind him is Carl, the youngest brother. The lad holding the ventriloquist dummy (Mr Parlanchin) is Mark, another of the Murtha brothers. I love how everyone is looking at Glenn except for Mr Parlanchin, who is clocking Tish taking the photograph. Taking a photograph like this requires trust; Tish could get up close and go unnoticed because she was ‘one of the kids’ (as her sister Eileen says). ‘Karen’ is one of the most cinematic photographs I’ve ever seen. It was taken in Elswick in 1980 and features Karen Lafferty, who appears in a number of Tish’s images. I like how Tish gives Karen power here; where other documentary photographers might have made her look like a victim of poverty, Tish frames Karen with empathy and respect. Ella says that her mam used to refer to this image as “Saturday night out on the dole”, which I think is very poignant. In working class communities people often use humour to help them get through the hard times. Today, that’s as essential as it was back when Karen sat on that upturned chair and looked down at the rubble. Hope among the ruins.

How important were her photos in shaping people’s attitudes to sex workers and the underclass?
Jen Corcoran: Tish honed her approach as an artist taking photographs of her family and friends. Her experiences growing up gave her a set of values that she carried through all of her work, prioritising openness, collaboration and empathy. She applied those same attitudes to her work documenting Soho nightlife. The series was co-created with one of its primary subjects – Karen, a dancer and stripper – who wrote the critical text that accompanied Tish’s images. The respect Tish had for her subjects is clear; the images are imbued with a power, a presence and ownership of their space. With her camera Tish wanted to give people a value, particularly those who may otherwise have been overlooked or looked down upon by wider society.

How do you think Murtha’s work has impacted photography and art and culture in general? Why do you think the popularity of her work has grown over time?
JC: As curator Gordon Macdonald comments in the film, photographic history in Britain has generally been dominated by a privileged elite. Unlike many social documentary photographers, Tish was from the same streets as the people she photographed. Her work was motivated not by voyeurism but by a desire to use documentary photography as a tool for change, a record of injustice, and a celebration of life. 

To have Tish’s work established alongside the canon of British documentary photographers leaves us with a cherished record of our communities that depicts the joy and humanity of working-class lives. However, it also provokes a conversation about who has the right to tell a person’s story and prompts us to consider the lens and motive of the documentarian. Recent years have rightfully seen a reckoning in art and wider culture, allowing previously unheard and marginalised voices to the fore. I’m pleased that Tish’s talent and indomitable spirit is now being recognised – her work is held in the permanent collection at Tate Britain – but it is still a tragedy that she was not recognised in her lifetime due to the simple circumstances of her birth.

Do you think that art is lacking working-class voices like Murtha’s these days?
JC: I do, and have witnessed it first-hand through my 15-year career in the film industry. There are still widespread imbalances in class representation in the creative industries – recent research shows that only 26% people in a creative occupation are from a working-class background, compared to 52% from higher socio-economic backgrounds. The situation has been compounded by the cost of living crisis and by ever-deepening cuts to arts funding over the past 13 years, meaning that the ability to make a living while making art is out of reach for all but the most privileged in society, just as it was in Tish’s day. Sky-high tuition fees and the total defunding of arts education in recent years mean that aspiration is cut off at the source. There is very much an awareness of this but a total lack of appetite for change from policymakers. 

What viewpoints will be lost if working-class voices are silent in conversations about our society? 
PS: I don’t think working-class voices will be silent in conversations about our society, but certainly they need amplifying. When we don’t listen to working-class voices we lose plurality of thought and perspectives from people who are often on the receiving end of harsh inequalities. Austerity was a political choice rather than an economic necessity and the decisions made in that period affected working-class people more than anyone else. Most Westminster politicians only care about listening to what working-class people think when there are elections to win. For the rest of the time they merely pay lip service to them. You hear politicians like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg waffling on with long, elaborate sentences, slipping in Latin words they learned from an expensive private school education, and it’s a reminder that people like that have contempt for working-class people. At places like Eton they are taught to be confident, but in many cases, this translates into arrogance. They think we’re beneath them. Unfortunately, in the UK there has always been a form of subservience to a posh accent; a lot of people assume that when someone speaks with a posh voice they sound respectable and know what they’re talking about, when they’re often chatting absolute bollocks. 

What do you think Murtha would make of today’s social and political climate?
PS: I expect she’d be angry and appalled at the government and maybe furious at how little things had changed. But I’m wary of attempting to second guess what anyone thinks when they aren’t here to speak for themselves.

TISH was supported by BFI Doc Society Fund and Screen Scotland, each awarding funding from the National Lottery. How important are these organisations for filmmakers like yourselves?
JC: Right now, the BFI Doc Society Fund is the only organisation in the UK awarding funding for specifically for creative documentary film. We were also very fortunate to be granted funds from Screen Scotland and to work in co-production with the Scottish industry to tell Tish’s story. Both of these organisations are staffed by small teams of brilliant and empathetic minds who understand the value of creative storytelling, meaningful inclusion and long-term investment in talent. I have been fortunate to work with Doc Society on both of my feature documentaries as an independent producer, neither of which would have been likely to find commercial backers, and I would have a very different career without them. We need properly resourced public arts organisations like the BFI, Doc Society and Screen Scotland in order to ensure that the vibrancy and diversity of our homegrown industry is supported and secured.

The film had its premiere at Sheffield DocFest. How was that? What was the feedback like?
PS: It was wonderful, a brilliant day and fabulous to see an audience take Tish Murtha into their hearts and appreciate how amazing she was. Very grateful to Raul Niño Zambrano, Annabel Grundy, Carmen Thompson, Mita Suri, Mat Steel and all of the DocFest team for selecting Tish and making the premiere a great occasion for the Tish crew.

What are hoping audiences take away from the film?
JC: In telling Tish’s story, we wanted to make a film that went beyond simple biography and told a wider story about how working-class communities and working-class artists are valued in British society. Tish wasn’t able to survive as an artist and we hope the film shows the importance of the work that was lost. In growing closer to Ella and Tish’s family we’re also reminded of the very great personal loss – as well as an artist, Tish was a sister, mother and fierce friend, and a champion of marginalised voices. I hope that audiences feel as angry as we do at the ongoing ‘barbaric forces’ in society and are motivated as Tish was, and as we were, to use art as a tool for change.

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