Yorkshire exhibition shines a light on a different side of Britain
Invisible Britain: This Separated Isle, a new exhibition which runs at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery until October, explores how notions of ‘Britishness’ can throw up a range of different opinions about our national character.
The show, curated by documentary filmmaker Paul Sng, features more than 30 photographic portraits of a diverse range of people from across the UK taken by leading contemporary photographers. Each portrait is accompanied by a first-person testimony by the person in the photograph which gives the viewer an insight into their life and feelings.
“We are a really complex island, we don’t have a fixed identity and that is what comes across in the exhibition – it is a significant, inclusive snapshot of Britain today,” says Anne McNeill, director of Impressions Gallery. “It touches on race, class and language and family. A number of the portraits are of people from marginalised communities. Some of the photographs are just amazing; they provide some much-needed perspective and they are a record of our uncertain times.”
The exhibition is inspired by and based on a book of the same title, published in September 2021 and edited by Sng. The Invisible Britain project grew naturally out of his work as a documentary filmmaker – in 2015 he set up Velvet Joy Productions with the aim of exploring the lives and work of people who have been neglected, marginalised or misrepresented by the arts and media. In all his work he takes a collaborative approach that strives for inclusivity and diversity. Invisible Britain: This Separated Isle is the second book, following on from Invisible Britain which came out in 2018.
“I started thinking about a book where you would have a documentary photograph and the person in the image would have the chance to say something,” he says. “They would be interviewed and could edit their story; you could only use their words, so they could represent themselves faithfully. Invisible Britain featured people who had been on the harsh end of austerity, who might be disenfranchised or who felt unheard or neglected by Westminster but they were stories of hope and resilience.”
Creating This Separated Isle felt like a timely follow-up, taking in some of the social and political developments that have taken place in the intervening period, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and changing attitudes towards immigration. “It is more personal for me – I am Chinese and British and I struggled with my identity growing up,” says Sng. “I am from a working-class single parent family and it was difficult for me, there was also the struggle you have when you are biracial. These are themes I have always been interested in, as a filmmaker as well.”
Sng feels that the exhibition is important right now in that it presents an alternative perspective of where we are currently as a nation. “There is a word that gets used quite a lot when we are referring to people who are different from us and that is ‘tolerance’. I don’t like that,” he says. “Why would we want to be just tolerated? I would like us to accept each other’s differences. I think what we should celebrate is that we can have differences in opinion. On social media if someone doesn’t share your view, we end up turning on each other. There are plenty of people I disagree with but I respect their right to have their opinion. For example, I don’t think it was the right decision to leave the EU but I would never disrespect somebody who voted otherwise. I think we should try and understand why people made those decisions.”
The diversity of thought and opinion is reflected in the testimonies from the people whose portraits are featured in the exhibition. All ages and sectors of British society are represented. They include teenager Stina Fisher from Glasgow who says: “At the moment it’s young people who are trying to make a change, even though it’s not their fault that things are like this” and nonagenarian Nathan Field, part of London’s long-established Jewish community, who remembers Oswald Mosley’s fascists marching through the East End, destroying Jewish homes and businesses. He says: “I’m 96 now. I hear the news and I’m worried. Once again, populist ideology is trying to divide us.”
Naqeeb Saide, a refugee from Afghanistan who now lives in Worthing, says: “Most people who arrive here want to work hard to build a new life and contribute back to the country. We just want a safe roof over our heads” while Yassine Houmdi, who settled in Portobello near Edinburgh after moving there from Morocco points out: “Immigrants pay taxes to help the economy… politicians don’t talk about that.” Louis Beckett in Rochdale says: “The North has always been treated differently from the South and it’s just got worse with those lot in power now” while Gagan Bhatnagar in London says: “the real saving grace of British society… is their love for the NHS.”
While most acknowledge the difficulties, there is also overall a willingness to look forward and try to effect positive change. Sng feels there is cause for optimism.
“I think it is always possible in communities on a local level to heal; there’s a lot of hope. If you are thinking about society as a whole or the national picture, that’s difficult but there are communities here that have lived together for decades. The healing is not coming out of Westminster, it’s coming out of communities being able to organise. There is hope there, if you look for it.”
McNeill agrees. “While there is division, I do think it’s possible to heal,” she says. “We know that the arts are a great communicator. I think some people might get angry by some of what they see in the exhibition, and quite rightly, but there is a lot of hope, positivity and resilience too. I don’t think it will leave people feeling despondent. Having the first-person testimonies puts the people in the portraits centre stage; it means we can begin to understand those people’s stories better. That’s what art can do – help you understand someone else’s life.”
Invisible Britain: This Separated Isle is at Impressions Gallery, Bradford until October 15. The book is on sale at the gallery for £15.