Photographers can tell all kinds of stories, and these stories emerge in many different ways; most often the preference has been to address some situation in the wider world, given the (apparent) capacity that photography has for dealing with social realities. But there is an equally important source for the stories that photographers tell, and it is to be found in their own lives, their own experience of the world. We call these stories subjective, because insofar as they are ‘about’ anything, they address a particular set of experiences seen from the perspective of the person living them: the photographer becomes their own witness. This subjective tendency is an important tradition in the medium, but hasn’t always received as much critical attention as other approaches, perhaps because of the values of specific institutions, or simply because the dominant frameworks for thinking about the medium have favoured its more ‘objective’ uses. But it is an important tradition nonetheless, and one whose influence has been far-reaching. Its origins are mostly, if not exclusively, to be found in the post-war decades, and it is this particular context that gives us a useful way of thinking about how a subjective tradition in the medium emerged.
Our institutions and our freedoms are inherently fragile, subject to pressures that can deform or destabilise them. In that respect, a recent drift to the political right can’t have escaped the notice of anyone with an eye for historical parallels, and with it has come a return to the kind of attitudes that once haunted the European continent in even more substantial forms. It seems we have an almost irresistible tendency to keep making the same mistakes, repeating the same destructive patterns, which emerge out of the complex interplay between social and historical factors. Often these can circumscribe future action as much as they enable it, hindering change as a by-product, or to the extent that those in power benefit from the status quo. With that in mind, it is perhaps as good a time as any to re-examine a photographic work that in its own distinctive way takes on this issue of what might be called historical inheritance, precisely by addressing it in those terms, and, in the process, raising often uncomfortable questions about how the reluctance to face a legacy of division and violence can profoundly affect national life.