Inspired by names like Don McCullin, documentary photographer Mary Turner not only takes images, but she truly seems to live every moment within those images. It imbues her images with a visceral quality stemming from her ability to become totally immersed in the environment and the people she captures. That ability of course has double edged consequences which she duly acknowledges. But Mary Turner relishes the ability to become “part of the family” or “like a sister”-a pivotal skill in documentary photography.
Aside from the urge to get that shot however it is clear that Mary Turner hankers to capture the ‘true’ environments and the people. In that process she dispels stero-types and assumptions because her work captures the attention and then absorbs you into her world.
MUM, WAVES FROM THE PAST ACKNOWLEDGING PHOTOGRAPHIC PASSION
When I was seven my granddad bought me a cheap little camera for Christmas – I can still remember the bright orange box it came in and the excitement of realising what I could do with this amazing machine. When I dropped it the battery compartment broke and I was devastated. But he taped it up for me and we kept it alive. Over the next few months I snapped away at my family – hilariously wonky and bad photos. The things you focus on as a child are funny now, but I loved it.
One holiday we went to the Weald and Downland Museum, a living history museum in England where you can explore historic British buildings. I went up into one building and looked out of the window and my mum was waving to me from below. Wanting to take a photograph I thought it would be good to use the window I was looking out of to frame her in. I can still remember how pleased I was with the framing, that I’d done this clever thing and I was so proud of my idea that I ran down to tell her what I’d done.
The magical moment came when the images came back from processing. The excitement erupted all over again when it was exposed correctly and there she was again-through the window, waving back at me in the sunshine. My mum was dying at that time, (although I didn’t know it), and it’s one of the last photos I have of her. Honestly, I’d go back into a burning building to save that little piece of glossy paper. I guess I knew then, the power of the camera. Even now when I look at it she reaches me down the years.
It’s hugely important to me that as an industry we remember that it isn’t about us, it’s about those we work with.
I quite often think when I look at the subjects and people I work with, that the loss of my mum and some wider family members at the same time, has influenced my choices without me realising it. I often find myself looking at families, mothers and their children, watching that dynamic.There is something about being in the company of groups of women, somehow, I seem to gravitate towards them. The gold that passes between mothers and daughters-I love to watch it. But also, (as I was brought up in quite a male environment), I’m very comfortable working with guys too. I suppose it’s a female perspective on things that I understand inherently.
SHYNESS, CAMERA AND DON McCULLIN
I wanted to be a news photographer for a long time. Don McCullin was one of my first major influences. I was moved to tears by one of his images and I thought – wow, if you can do that, have an impact like that then that is incredible. His work is visceral, forces you to look and experience what he is seeing. But as I worked my way up the news ladder I felt that I got further and further away from people I photographed. I was going out on jobs snapping a few frames and then leaving before I’d had any real time to get to know them. I felt that the work didn’t tell the truth. It was just a version of the truth that I was sent to capture. When I started working on my first long form work, I knew that while it is very hard, this was the only way for me. In an age of so much instant, almost disposable, news, it was in the long form format that I would be able to communicate to a level hopefully near the power and truth that McCullin did. There simply isn’t time in news to get that depth and so my commitment now is solely to that way of working.
The history of art has been defined by the ‘male gaze’ and there are relatively few female photographers who have been given the exposure and respect given to men; it’s still a constant challenge. This bias affects how history has been documented in art. It is a history channelled through that male experience and voice.
In my work with both women and men I feel that my vision is distinctly that of a woman no matter who I am working with. I often feel that the access I get is often assisted by my gender. I’m currently working with a guy, Reece, who suffers with drug problems in the North-East of England. When I sit with him and when I watch him I don’t feel that the experience could possibly be channelled and captured the same way through the male gaze. There’s an honesty in our relationship that might be different with a male photographer. He’s more prepared to be vulnerable with me.
He’s spent years in prison, years on drugs just coping, surviving in a very macho environment. He pushes his emotions down, holds everything in. Men from his background were/are taught to put on a show. They need to be man’s man. As the local bad boy few people have a good word to say about him. With me that’s not there. Interestingly it’s nearly always men who judge him, who say he’s a ‘smackhead’ and a ‘waste of space’. I never saw that. From the start I saw beauty in him. There is pain, struggle and an on-going cover-up in every movement of his body and it allows for real tenderness in the work.
THE FEMALE GAZE OBSERVES THE FIGHT IN THE KINGS
I am working on a project about cage fighting in Sunderland. It’s huge in the North-East. It also comes with so many male sterotypes, so many assumptions. Ask a city worker in London about cage-fighting and they will likely paint a picture that is without subtely.
The main image in that work is of an old shipyard. It’s a huge part of the heritage of the North-East. They are all closed now and nearly all have been covered with concrete or call centres. This is one of the few shipyards which has the old site remaining. I remember fighting through this dreadful snow storm and climbing over all sorts of rubble to get the shot. Essentially it is a project about economic deprivation as much as anything else. These young men who fight have nothing-none of the sense of pride and structure that their fathers and grandfathers would have had working in the shipyards pictured.
When I walked into that environment, full of testosterone and male ego, they just took me in. Sometimes I feel like they think I’m like their little sister, and it’s allowed me great access. I saw a similar thing that I have with Reece. These sensitive young men putting up a front.
The fighting gives them this sense of those things. It’s an old-fashioned masculine area, where ‘men are men’. The title is about their heritage. Their fathers quite literally built so much of this country – through industries like shipping, steel, coal, and now they have nothing, zero, to be proud of. But when they step into the octagon they are kings for one night, heroes in front of their families and friends and they give everything working towards it. Far from the stereotypes it is a really moving experience to witness and I hope to convey that in the work.
TRAVELLERS AND TATTOES HELP DISPEL STEROTYPES
I feel it’s so important to get past stereotypes and remember that ultimately life should be approached through the lens of what we have in common and not what separates us. I feel so sad that this is such a problem in society now – driving wedges between ourselves. It’s common in times of economic struggle and change but it is obviously self-defeating in the long run. With my work with the Irish Travellers that was a key part of it. They were being forced out of their home and all these excuses were put about – planning laws and legal speak, but ultimately it was about ‘them and us’. Both sides needed to find out who each other really were. A cup of tea probably could have sorted it and save an £8 million forced eviction.
Stereotypes are lazy, and I see it as a part of my job not to compound that.
It’s been nigh on ten years now that I’ve known the families and it’s become a very personal story. When the work began I spent months not really knowing where to go with it, what I was trying to say. Then I got a great piece of advice – just photograph them without agenda, just as if they were your family.
I remember when I first went to the Travellers’ site family and friends would make ask me if I wasn’t afraid going to see these people with these bad reputations. But it was totally the opposite. From the day I arrived they were kind.
I was lucky enough to meet two incredible and trusting women, Barbara and Jean and they allowed me to just hang out. In return I helped them with forms they needed filling in, getting doctors’ appointments, all sorts of things that they find hard as they are illiterate. I just tried to be a friend an hung out with this great group of women and never saw anything but great people. I wanted to get past the stereotypes and get my experience across.
It’s also true in Sunderland where I spend a lot of time these days. I did a shoot recently for CNN. I went to a local pub and there were all these muscly, bald and tattooed guys smoking outside – you’d think based on stereotypes that they were a bunch of EDL types. On the contrary, going through the door the journalist (James Masters) and I found it was the warmest, kindest place. Stereotypes are lazy, and I see it as a part of my job not to compound that.
FROM BIAS, TO BRYAN AND EVOKING PARADOXICAL HUMANITY
I struggle sometimes with objectivity. I’m very empathetic which should be a good thing, but it can be problematic. I get so passionate about the work I do and nearly always end up feeling so strongly about those I work with that I desperately want people to see what I have learned. I always think that on a good piece there is a moment when you fall in love with it, the place, the people and it is hard then not to want others to feel that through your work. But at the same time, I think people should be able to look at my work and take what they want to from it without me forcing it on them, so I try hard to keep an eye on that, but it is hard.
Heroin rattling is one of the worst things I have ever seen, it can kill, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Bryan is a homeless man and he is one of the kindest most interesting people I know. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people walk past him in central London every day and if they see anything at all they just see an old junkie homeless guy. I’ve sat with him and seen people’s eyes fall on him and then move quickly away. It’s tiresome. I met him on a news feature, about being cold at Christmas, highlighting the effects of austerity and a lack of housing on homelessness, but I just couldn’t get the reality of knowing him and the complexities of his life to fit that news line.
There are plenty of options for Bryan, but the truth is that like most people you see begging in central London he needs to be on the street to feed the drugs that own his whole body and soul. It’s too simple to pretend that homelessness is all about housing. Repeating that cliché won’t help deal with the issues of addiction. It’s a tragedy not a crime. Bryan’s not evil, he is ill. And would I give £1 to get him into a hostel – yes? But I would I also give him a pound to stop his whole body being forced to rebel against itself in the agony of heroin withdrawal? Yes. Heroin rattling is one of the worst things I have ever seen, it can kill, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Not giving isn’t going to stop Bryan being a junkie or teach him a life lesson – that’s who he is now, in his 50s, he’s short of things to live for so yes, I’d give him that money on a cold December night to help him not go through hell. In essence, if we can’t focus on the truth however brutal, complex and difficult it may be, then we have no chance of dealing with the real more difficult to face issues.
SYRIA CONFIRMS A LIFE LONG PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY
I was in Lebanon working for Concern on a campaign for Syrian refugees. I’ve worked on this issue in Turkey – and am keen to do more. It feels at times as if the on-going struggles of Syrian refugees have completely dropped off the radar of public consciousness. It’s desperately upsetting when you see what they are going through. There is no chance of decent housing for many, let alone education and a sense of future. In years to come many of those children growing up in desperate conditions will come to know that they have been robbed – perhaps an even bigger concern. It felt great to do the work – although we saw such upsetting things working on it as a team. If they and I have done a good enough job, it will help a campaign to raise money that will directly go to those families, put doors and windows into homes, give them some protection against the coming winter and food into their malnourished stomachs.
It’s why I went into photography really, to try and help and to feel that I’m doing that in a direct way means a great deal. It is so important to me to treat people I work with, with dignity and respect. It might sound obvious, but when there is so much imagery around, so many egos on the hunt for great images and prestige that that can get lost. It’s hugely important to me that as an industry we remember that it isn’t about us, it’s about those we work with. If we don’t remember this, we lose trust and the right to capture these moments, which is so important, especially these days.