John Levett is the leader of the Greenwich Satellite Group of London Independent Photography, since it’s founding two and a half years ago.
He explains his background: “Receiver of unwanted goods from ex-RAF aerial reconnaisance photographer at age ten. Various darkroom experiences in reconstructed outside lavvy and inside kitchen scullery followed, as did pocket money from snapping graves for families of deceased neighbours. Forty years later resurfaced in inspirational Cambridge Darkroom Gallery, joined transcendent LIP, found a life beyond shopping in Asda.”
For this showcase we discuss his collection of images called “Intent”, which did not begin as a series but emerged after various events. John says, “The taking of each of the photographs in the collection was accompanied either by a public monologue (occasionally threatening) or dialogue (sometimes demanding) regarding, variously, my motives for taking the shot, who I represented, the limits of privacy, matters of decency, questions of legality. These experiences raised issues of personal vs public space, the increasing restrictions upon our behaviour in the civil arena and how I conduct myself when photographing within identifiable communities.”
LIP: We are looking at quite a disparate series of images here where the common thread is your experience of being questioned or otherwise approached as to your intent as the photographer. What are your reasons for showing these images as a collection?
JOHN: In September 2008 I was walking along Sydney Street in Cambridge and decided to take a shot of a fading CND graffito. I’m interested in traces of social and economic history; I’d ignored it for too long. I took ten shots, stepped away, PC Dixon flashed his badge and politely asked why I was photographing the wall sign. I asked why he needed to flash the badge in order to find out. A semi-legal discussion with outrageously exaggerated claims on both sides took up ten minutes.
The incident made prominent issues of increasing incursions into civil space, restricting and manipulating how we negotiate place and space without interference from government and its agents. It is easy to counter by indicating that Cambridge city centre is not Tiananmen Square but principles of civil liberty are indivisible; every State prefers quiescence especially in public places. It’s not an exclusive issue for photographers; it is an issue for football supporters, party goers, picnickers, skateboarders, free-runners, train spotters, climate campers, anti-capitalists.
Most importantly it’s an issue of politics and how we engage in securing our own spaces. The terrorist-security trope is the catch-all for all manner of incursions and, understandably, it’s easier to comply than confront. It’s easy to adopt a metaphorical sliding-scale of liberty; if it’s a toss-up between arguing taking of a photograph and missing the last train out of town then the train wins.
There’s also another aspect to this collection which relates to our own protection of our privacy aside from official and extra-official policing of it. I’m referring not to the casual interest in why I’m photographing what I’m photographing but to its scaling-up to interrogation, demand and threat. I’m guessing that if I set up with easel & paint in a high street then I’d get a certain indulgence; tripod and the bellows on Richmond Hill above the Thames would tick the right boxes; a walk ’n snap past Petts Wood mock-Tudor gets you serious attention; the same thing under the Westway near White City can bring gatherings. “You might own the house but you don’t own the view” doesn’t match up to “If I still see you here in five minutes time I’ll smash that  camera over your  head”.
This aspect of the ‘photographic walk’ raises different questions. One is the extent to which the photographer is both an intruder and is seen to be an intruder—one who comes into a community and seeks to record an aspect of it but without any reference to or negotiation with those who occupy that space.
The other is a perceived change regarding the responsibility for protecting community spaces from the community to the individual. Jane Jacobs in ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ showed how safety in urban areas was protected not only by their physical configuration but by the way the residents moved around their areas and promoted a communal awareness and acted upon it. This is still true of some neighbourhoods in the city but with redevelopment of traditional street patterns, the formalising of play and recreational areas and the confusion of private and public thoroughfares the lone photographer is assessed as a risk and there lies a communal responsibility to confront the scoundrel.
LIP: How do you justify taking such photographs?
JOHN: In two ways—to myself and to another.
Most of what I photograph has some connection with memory—most strongly my own memories of growing and becoming, importantly my memories of the environs in which I lived, intellectually the memory etched on the face of a city. Creating a photograph of my personal memories involves only those who see the finished work; photographing my memories of an imagined city and the city’s reflection back involves others in the making and it’s this that can promote feelings of intrusion and being intruded upon.
If I can say of a place, “I used to live here” or “My mum used to run a grocer’s shop just round the corner” or “There used to be a bandstand there” then I make a connection to a past that is in possession of everybody. Others can relate to my memories.
History as remembrance matters. A people without history is vulnerable: “This is how we used to be” can be a source of purely romantic sentiment or it can be one of inspiration.
Photography not only records but it makes sense of things—how space is changed and changes in its turn; how communities grow, how they decline; how we built for permanence, how we build for immediacy. An entrance to a disused sorting office sets in stone the belief that post men will forever deliver the post; a shop is abandoned in step with the abandonment of its tape cassettes; trespassers were indeed once prosecuted for walking through Hawes Lane allotments. “All that is solid melts into air” wrote Marx correctly of modernity whilst then going on to unfortunately prophesy the end of history. Sir Kenneth Clark once said that civilisation began when people could envision a future; history is a remembrance of that people’s aspiration and endeavour, it roots us. It roots me.
When questioned I often never get past “This is where we lived just after the last war”. That’s usually good enough. If asked “Which war was that then?” I get started.
LIP: Do you appreciate when people are curious about what you are up to?
JOHN: When I returned to photography in the mid-90s I flapped around finding what engaged me most; it was architecture—modernism & it’s successors. I learnt all the angles, found the spots, finessed the crop, heroically pursued the heroic. If anybody took notice I didn’t notice it. For about ten years I walked through university campuses, shopping centres, office complexes, housing estates, new towns, old car parks—no questions, no confrontation, no badge-flashing.
Then things changed. What we can do in public spaces changed; questions came to be asked, positions taken, poses struck. Security was everyone’s affair, everyone a threat, the wandering stranger especially so. No more gaily snapping without consequence.
The strident questioner is more a player in what I do now than at the beginning of the decade but, more generally, those who are curious are simply more protective of self, kin and community—one way of making sense of disruption. Am I from the council? Am I going to do anything about the rubbish tipping? Are those houses coming down? Am I snooping for a solicitor? Do I know that this place is sacred? Had I thought of contributing to the wreath? Am I aware that this is a flood-plain and any more building on this’ll cause flooding in those streets?
I welcome the curious. I get stopped. I want to know what they know of the history of this place. Everybody knows part of the history of this place. Educational reform has tried for decades to kill off history (“It’s so ‘yesterday’ my dear”). The idea of the narrative, of placing oneself in history, of using it to make sense and shape of how we are now—these things matter to me, anchor me in a spot from where I get bearings, allow me to see that there are alternative ways of shaping a world. I’m not alone.
LIP: There are plenty of ‘T’s and text among these pictures, have you noticed this?
JOHN: Public text is a prime indicator of social and historical change. Punctuation, phrasing, typeface, position of use, its permanence or impermanence—all can place a neighbourhood in a particular moment, express assumptions of common interest, show confidence in a society and indicate a state of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.
The ‘T’s are coincidental but the crosses aren’t. As a child and well into my teens I went to church and chapel a lot and by ‘a lot’ I mean that it became the foundation of my life—three times a day on Sundays, prayer meetings, bible study, out on the streets proselytising. The chapel became the only place when I felt unconditionally accepted. I changed and my belief changed but there is part of that experience that is permanently with me. Recognizing a Christian symbol out of context in the street still brings something back. It’s an acknowledgment of somewhere I passed through; it never goes away.
LIP: You mentioned creating a narrative – of placing oneself in history and alternative ways of shaping a world. Do you see your work contributing to a collective narrative, the history of ‘us’ as you see it, or is your photographic approach primarily driven by your individual stories?
JOHN: I’m not alone in attributing a narrative to my life and thereby making sense of ‘The Whole Thing’. I also used to believe in the power of the collective narrative, the ‘purpose’ of history as a centripetal tendency that might contribute to and bring forth a collective shift in consciousness regarding how we organized our world. The history of the last century should have destroyed any belief in history as containing elements of purpose and inevitability.
The idea and creation of a people’s history is, however, a practical project and is a central feature of the work of a multitude of photographers. In some cases it’s centred in museums, galleries and libraries, in others in local history societies, elsewhere in trade unions and what’s left of working people’s clubs. Alongside written accounts, taped interviews, folk song, island languages and restored film the photographic record is crucial. It exists in an album, in a bottom drawer, in a semi-detached house, in a suburb of any town. It tells me how something of once was when I was born. It tells me about my relation to other cultures, other sexes, other classes; it tells me more than we ever admitted or wanted to know about family relations; it tells me about school, workshop, factory, holidays sacred and profane, urbanisation, de-industrialisation.
The history of Us is intimately connected to our individual stories but like all ‘histories’ they can sink with only faint traces. One of my cousins used to be the family archivist. Photographs from the end of the nineteenth century gathered in her albums. Once she died there was no one committed enough to continue the collection. The family, once concentrated in a few south London boroughs gradually dispersed during the last century and the close connections of one branch with another gradually frayed. What was once ‘The Family’ is no longer, what was once ‘The Archive’ is now many archives but they’re just as meaningful, they still have the function of connecting.
LIP: With so many photographers these days documenting our time in vastly different ways, how will your images physically be seen 50 years from now when they may have more value in the world? I mean, how do our photographs live beyond us, who will show them around after we’re gone? Is this important to you?
JOHN: Personally, it is not important that anything of me or anything of mine survives, but as a representative amongst many who grew to maturity in the immediate post-war world I think that our collective documentation of our era is important. I believe that the nature of what we believed to be representative democracy is changing along with governments’ relationship with elites and non-accountable agencies in society and that this threatens an individual’s relationship with the political process. If political accountability declines then economic accountability is further stifled.
Mainstream, prime-time news outlets do not serve us well—Sky plays the piper’s tune, the BBC self-censors after the Hutton-David Kelly events while the paper press revolves around imperial and post-imperial concerns and frightening celeb saturation.
Meanwhile, there are many fine photographers in the Majority World who struggle for outlets—those who document the Somali war, oil extraction in the Niger Delta, conflict in the south Philippines, labour unrest in Egypt, the public execution of gays in Iran, the violence on civil rights campaigners in Russia, environmental activism in central Asia, immigrant workers in South Africa. Photography documents struggle; it also documents success—New Internationalist featured photographers from the Majority World back in August 2007; here’s the link: www.newint.org/issues/2007/08/01/
Showing how we got from there to here matters in the personal dimension because it provides continuity of family, of clan, of tribe, of sect—it grounds us. It matters in the community dimension because it provides evidence which, given the multiplicity of channels of communication, can bypass the state and its agents. In this time in which we live the means and agencies of repression are growing and agencies of coercion are being outsourced. Photography keeps the pot boiling; keeps scratching the itch. Go back to Don McCullin’s images of the Vietnam war. Amongst all the noise, the single image shouts loudest.
LIP: What effect has photography had on your psyche? And would you recommend it as a practice for personal development?
JOHN: For someone totally self-obsessed, my psyche gets a hard time from photography. Like everyone else there are things in my life that didn’t happen and I wish they had. There are things in my life that did happen and were severely troubling. I am, however, happy with the result.
I have spent much time privately and publicly documenting aspects of my life. I have done it specifically to try and understand parts of my life that seemed forever boarded-up—things never talked about, things lied about, things avoided, people missing, people without names. I’m trying to fill gaps and it’s impossible. What it does do, however, is tell me much about the coping mechanisms that I’ve created, the bluffs I’ve played, the ignorance I’ve tolerated, the self-deception I’ve practiced, the snake oil I’ve bought, the scumbag I once was.
It works. I’m now healed, totally spiffing, safe as a tightrope walker, as certain of the correctness of my self-belief as a futures trader.
Photography and personal development—better results than reading Proust.
Interview by Tiffany Jones