Photographing Neoliberalism in the Thatcher Era: Anna Fox Feature and Interview

Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ April 17, 2020

From the series Work Stations

    The 1980s are remembered today mostly through nostalgia culture. With movies and shows like Stranger Things, Hot Summer Nights, etc. while forgetting that the 80s marked an ideological and economic turning point. With Reagan in charge in the US and Thatcher in the UK, a new ideology found itself in the mainstream. One of radical individualism, free markets, consumerism, weakened labor movements, and a new perspective on the role of the government. This ideology came to be known as neoliberalism. In today’s nostalgia of 80s culture, maybe we communicate an ideological paralysis that illuminates our economic one. As the US officially fazes out Bernie, leaving an election between Biden and Trump and the UK is moving forward with Brexit under Boris Johnson, do we find ourselves today stuck with what Mark Fisher calls a ‘zombie’ of neoliberalism?

Work Stations

    The photographer Anna Fox was a part of the British wave of color social documentary photographers in the 80s. In Anna Fox’s project Work Stations and Basingstoke we see Thatcher’s Britain and what it stands for. Families walk through shopping centers as the children accumulate as many toys [commodities] as possible. The system has “...torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” (Marx) Thatcher’s relentless war against labor, unions, and public programs created a middle class while leaving the working class powerless. 

From the series Basingstoke

    The work place shifted from the Fordist workplace, as factory jobs were sent abroad through ‘free trade’, to the post-Fordist office and service jobs we see in Fox’s work. Thatcher once said, ‘Economics are the method, but the object is to change the soul.’ We can revise that to say that the object is to replace the soul in favor of economics, or the ‘free market’.  Left with “ other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” (Marx). 

“The overall effect was to transform the UK into a country of relatively low wages and a largely compliant labourforce (relative to the rest of Europe) within ten years. By the time Thatcher left office, strike activity had fallen to one-tenth of its former levels. She had eradicated inflation, curbed union power, tamed the labour force, and built middle-class consent for her policies in the process… Alan Budd, an economic adviser to Thatcher, later suggested that ‘the 1980s policies of attacking inflation by squeezing the economy and public spending were a cover to bash the workers’.” David Harvey, History of Neoliberalism, p 59, 2005.

From the series Work Stations.

   The new economic ideology succeeded in creating a society that no longer had any bargaining power in their labor, leaving the workers to equate satisfaction instead with commodities and images as “a permanent opium war designed to force people to equate goods with commodities and to equate satisfaction with a survival that expands according to its own laws.” (Debord)

    After WWII a drive to move past Keynesian economics led to the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society in Europe and a slow development of the kinds of ideas that would solidify in the 80s. The Society started spreading these ideas, getting intellectuals and journalists on board, slowly reaching the masses. It was the stagflation of the 70s that triggered these ideas to be implemented and turned into a new ‘common sense’. Neoliberal thought was waiting for a catastrophe to exploit, as the popular Milton Friedman quote goes:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

    Friedman thought this is what happened after the Great Depression and WWII with Keynesian policies, as Naomi Klein observed, “He [Friedman] believed history "got off on the wrong track" when politicians began listening to John Maynard Keynes, intellec­tual architect of the New Deal and the modern welfare state.” The Mont Pelerin Society and its members, like Friedman (who would advise both Reagan and Thatcher) who were considered fringe raticals prior to the 80s, helped to make these policies known so that they were the only alternative ‘laying around’ by the 70s; planting the seeds that would grow into the Reagan and Thatcher era. The new ‘common sense’ changed the definition of general and individual freedom to be replaced by the constantly evolving definition of the ‘free market’. 

Afterwards: The Zombie Hangover

From the series Afterwards

    In Anna Fox’s project, Afterwards, we see bodies lying strawn across floors and lawns, what’s left of last night’s party. We no longer see the malls and consumers with their fast food, we see only the litter and the byproduct of what comes after, or what is sent abroad in the name of competition and free trade (slave labor, “conflict minerals” in iPhones, etc.). While today, in the wake of COVID-19, we see a forced acknowledgement of how these policies that started in the 80s and have evolved into today contributed to the disastrous response to the virus in both the US and UK (private and defunded public healthcare, production of vital medical equipment/medication in China, availability of testing for the rich vs everyone else, etc.). It’s only now that we acknowledge that we’ve been living in a zombie of neoliberalism ourselves and all that’s left is the litter and sick bodies.

From the series Afterwords

    With technology, trade, and profit increases, our neoliberal system has not shortened the work week or increased wages, but instead created a gig economy where everyone works three jobs and the unprecedented profits disproportionately go to the shareholders, CEOs, and stock buybacks instead of raising wages or shortening hours... “these alleged freedoms and choices meant merely a transformed version of capitalism’s incessant need to mold a work force in its own image. “ (Ewen). After 2008, the Occupy movements and general mistrust in our system didn’t lead to a new alternative, as Mark Fisher points out:

“The problem is that although the 2008 crisis was caused by neoliberal policies, those selfsame policies remain practically the only ones “lying around”. As a consequence, neoliberalism is still politically inevitable.”
Mark Fisher, How to kill a zombie: strategizing the end of neoliberalism, 2013

    In the wake of COVID-19, it’s important to mention Fisher’s observation that “as the afficionados of zombie films are well aware, it is sometimes harder to kill a zombie than a living person.” Now we are witnessing the zombie of neoliberalism infected by the COVID-19 virus. The virus is eating away at neoliberalism’s shell, tearing down the fetishistic aesthetics of consumerism, exposing the US’s inadequate private healthcare system, and shining a light on the companies who’ve hoarded economic growth as they beg for government bailouts. The virus stands staring at Thatcher’s phrase, which is now a desperate plea, ‘There is no alternative’. We’re all left waiting for a $1200 check, forced to accept that the alternative (Corbyn and Bernie) lost to the establishment and right wing populism. Today, there’s no alternative but to find an alternative.

Interview with Anna Fox

Your photographs from the series’ Work Stations and Basingstoke offer a visual, flash lit, documentation of the Thatcher era - 9-5 office workers, shoppers, and commodities - how has the perception of this work changed over time? Was there a contextual battle that pitted a glamorized vision of the images as utopian - you use a quote for a caption from the Basingstoke Gazette 1986, “Basingstoke is creating wealth and wealth pays for our social dreams” – against a satirical condemnation of the hyper-consumerist society of the spectacle?

    I believe all documentary work is viewed differently as time passes. Quite a lot of time has passed since these two series were made and so clearly there is a very different way of looking at style, design of space and clothing and as well the way people relate to one another and then the pictures represent the society at the time which was quite different. The key thing that has kept these bodies of work interesting is that they represent a particular time in our history when society was dramatically changed from something that was more community orientated to something that revolved around the cult of the individual. How much money you made and what you could buy to represent this wealth; a house, a car, fine holidays etc, all these things came to be the measure of success in life. The text and image combination was deliberate to create a satirical commentary on the times. People I spoke to read it like this and I think the people I photographed did as well, it was gentle satire, and none of it meant to offend any individual in any image – I thought about this carefully when I put the images and texts together. I was attracted to photography because of the simplicity of its message and the way it could get out to so many people, it was important to keep the text element direct and to the point.

Do you see yourself and the other colour photographers of the Thatcher era as cultural critics, documentarians, or something in between?

    I suppose I would call us modern story tellers, socio/cultural observers and commentators. Like history painting of the past from Corot to Hogarth or writers like Dickens, photographers are chroniclers of the time – and in the 80s we were quite a small group of photographers unlike now – this was important too. I associate a lot with literature and although I didn’t read much as a young person there were key books that I knew well. I admired the way that fiction such as Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, Metamorphosis and 1984 worked as metaphors for the condition of Societies.

Describe your process in shooting projects like Work Stations and Basingstoke?

    The working process is relatively simple. I make contacts with the places where I want to shoot and get permissions. The contacts were either personal ones or in the case of Work Stations, ones made thought the Museum of London and Camerawork gallery (who commissioned the project). I spent 12 – 18 months shooting each body of work, sometimes only going once to each location and sometimes staying a week or so. Also doing related research. I used a medium format camera and portable flash and essentially walked around taking photographs of things that I felt were interesting in relation to what I was trying to speak about. I also looked for expressions and gestures that represented the time. I was trying to speak about several things: about Thatcher’s Britain; about changing technology in the work place and the problems with this; about the position for women at work; about the pursuit of individual wealth and about how aggressive this was. I also wanted to make a historical document recording places and life/work styles that had not usually been photographed. I spoke to almost everyone I photographed as I prefer to do this, I told them what I was doing and where the work would end up. I rarely gave prints to people as I photographed far too many to do this. I shot hundreds of rolls of film. At the same time as photographing I collected interviews, texts, editorials about the place or about modern working life. Once I was fairly well immersed in the work I started to edit and select both images and texts separately. This process cannot be done together otherwise one thing seems to start illustrating the other and this was not the effect I wanted. I wanted the text to almost bang together with the image to emphasise something or to make a third meaning – to bring out ore of a feel for the time that chimed with the images (this is quite difficult to explain). In any case you needed to read them all to get the full idea of it as in each series the 35 images and texts (or so) became almost like a short story or a storyboard for a film and the whole sense of the work was really only gained from reading it in full. I printed the work myself and feel that the art of printing contributes to the feel of the work and so its Meaning.

For Millennials and Gen Z, we can only experience the 80s through images, movies, music, romanticized culture; could you talk a bit about living in the Thatcher era retrospectively and in what ways our image based perspectives might be limited? In what ways did neoliberalism (deregulation, globalization, a religious faith in the private sector) manifest into your daily life that we can’t see through our limited visual representations?

    I think the Thatcher years had an air of excitement and possibility about them, I kind of enhanced mania tinged with the fear of evolving into an Orwellian or Huxleyan world. And the down side of this was it also had a sense of enormous loss, severe poverty and inequality. Like anyone else at that time, I did my best to work with it and being a photographer allowed you a degree of alternativity; you were on the outside of things looking in and this was preferable. As well I hardly earnt any money at all at least until about 2004 so I didn’t experience the economic crash like others did, those that had gotten into the money making business.

    I had an email recently from the guy in this picture telling me about how his life had gone, the burn out, the heart attack and how he rebuilt his life. He invited me to photograph him in his new situation. I would like to do this and interview him further and perhaps find more of those people. He knew where to find the woman and actually I heard a woman from the image of an office party speaking on the radio the other day so I could find her too. This would be a truly interesting comment on that time, to get all those people to look back and reflect on what has happened to them.

Your captions in Basingstoke seem an essential aspect of the project, how does text effect documentary photography?

    Massively – that is a book chapter!!! Text is as much an art as photography is, you have to work with it with a whole set of artistic concerns, it is not separate nor is it an add on. It is the same as the sound track of a film it contributes massively to the meaning of the film and needs to be considered as seriously as the imagery.

What could photography (documenting physical manifestations of policies, ideology, etc.) do in the Thatcher era? Do you find these images are most effective today as a retrospective representation of that time, or were there more direct effects in the present when you released the work?

    I don’t think they could do much at the time, although I know Paul Graham’s series Beyond Caring was used in several editorials in campaign magazines about unemployment problems. Some of this type of work appeared in magazines and supplements which is where they would need to appear if they were going to have an effect but they were never entirely journalistic and so they weren’t seen so much as campaigning for change, rather as satirical or ironic observations of the society – which of course can have some effect. Now that we realise the impact of the Thatcher years we can look back at this work with a different knowledge and use it to think about how things went wrong. Not everything was wrong, of course!

Should photographers intend for direct action to come out of their work, or is this too easily consumed into the larger structures today (news companies posting current events like sports for clicks, oil companies branding as being ‘clean’, mega corporations branding as lgbt friendly, etc.) and therefore should be more localized and realistic in their intentions?

    Certain kinds of photographers should definitely be trying to do this – it is vital to campaign for change, there are so many different strands of documentary story telling.

How has your process evolved from the 80s to today?

    I have done lots of very different bodies of work and one or two quite similar. I never wanted to keep re-using the same methods and styles as for me the style of the work has a huge impact on the content and meaning in the work. I use different cameras different ways of working – I try to use the method as part of the response to the idea. I am still essentially a story teller – I love stories, and my interests expand and retract. I am still interested in our society and how we live in it.

Film, and filters/presets that imitate film, are extremely popular today; along with a continuation of photographic styles of the 20th century (photojournalism, advertising, not to mention movies, etc.), do you think photography (and culture more generally) in the 21st century stuck repeating, or haunted by, tropes of the 20th century?

    I don’t think so, it’s not something that I am worried by, I have seen lots of new ways of using photography. I suppose it might be possible that this happens to some extent, maybe we are all waiting for another situation like the Thatcher years – maybe it’s now.

What’s your advice to the current generation of documentary photographers?

    Focus on ideas that are important to you and your peers – keep active, Keep working, know what’s happening, create a network for yourself which connects you to the world of photography so you can help each other and have conversations, keep reading, keep listening, keep thinking, above all be curious about the world

What’s to be done with this ‘zombie’ of neoliberalism, in the face of populism, that we face today and can photography do anything more than document it?

    PROTEST in every way that you can – use the time now to think of ways that we can re-invent ourselves and do a better job – why do we all need to be working so hard and spending so hard, what is the function of this work we do? That is just for starters!

See more of Anna Fox’s work on her website

All images © Anna Fox, courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London