University of Sussex
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Waste of a nation: photography, abjection and crisis in Thatcher’s Britain

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posted on 2023-06-09, 04:29 authored by Alice Compton
This examination of photography in Thatcher’s Britain explores the abject photographic responses to the discursive construction of ‘sick Britain’ promoted by the Conservative Party during the years of crisis from the late 1970s onwards. Through close visual analyses of photojournalist, press, and social documentary photographs, this Ph.D examines the visual responses to the Government’s advocation of a ‘healthy’ society and its programme of social and economic ‘waste-saving’. Drawing Imogen Tyler’s interpretation of ‘social abjection’ (the discursive mediation of subjects through exclusionary modes of ‘revolting aesthetics’) into the visual field, this Ph.D explores photography’s implication in bolstering the abject and exclusionary discourses of the era. Exploring the contexts in which photographs were created, utilised and disseminated to visually convey ‘waste’ as an expression of social abjection, this Ph.D exposes how the Right’s successful establishment of a neoliberal political economy was supported by an accelerated use and deployment of revolting photographic aesthetics. My substantial contribution to knowledge is in tracking the crises of Thatcher’s Britain through reference to an ‘abject structure of feeling’ in British photography by highlighting a photographic counter-narrative that emerged in response to the prevailing discourse of social sickness. By analysing the development and reframing the photographic languages of British documentary photographers such as Chris Killip, Tish Murtha, Martin Parr and Nick Waplington, I demonstrate how such photography was explicitly engaged in affirmative forms of social abjection and ‘grotesque realism’. This Ph.D examines how this renewed form of documentary embodied an insurgent photographic visual language which served to undercut the encompassing discourses of exclusionary social abjection so pervasive at the time.


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