Photographer Stephen J Morgan happens to be one of my oldest friends. We worked together more than ten years ago, at a gallery back in London, but have kept in touch all along, writing emails most every month or so. I send him stories and ramblings and he sends me pictures. I stayed with him in Brighton the year before last and we talked non-stop for three days. We ate fish and chips on the stormy beach front, drank pots of strong coffee and looked through old black and white pictures at his beautiful Danish table. It was wonderful. Stephen observes things - the way they are and the how they are. He has a way of capturing light in his photographs that I find almost startling. It's sometimes bleak, sometimes shadowy and golden, framing a moment just so. He is old-school, shoots with film and usually in one take, and on he walks. It amazes me. His work sits somewhere between the personal and the political and captures the complexities of both.
I find his recent work, The Other Side Of Everything, especially perceptive and impressive. In his own words:
Growing up in Birmingham during the 70’s and 80’s with an Irish Republican father meant the St George Cross and to a greater extent the Union Jack symbolised more than a token of where you were from and where you belonged. With the troubles in the north of Ireland the flags were a potent symbol of which side of the divide you stood. In Britain, used by the National Front, they became synonymous with right wing political views and a rudimentary form of nationalism.
Today these flags hang from tower blocks and are proudly displayed in the windows of houses. It is easy to dismiss them as remnants left over from celebrations of what it is to be English and what it is to be British. For me they take on a darker meaning, almost like outposts, the last bastion and one last stand. It was said of the British Empire, “ The sun never set and the blood never dried.” So with remnants of its colonial past still hanging on and its attitudes to multiculturalism, psychologically I think, it can be argued that the English still see Britain as an Empire.
Previously my work has touched on what it was to be second generation Irish in England, realising early on that it was not about being Irish but about not feeling English or more importantly British. For the English I think the two are the same. The heart of the Empire was England and the English. So when a Union Jack is hung in a window of a house, the same feelings of nationality will resonate with the house in the next street proudly displaying the St George Cross.
So with this as my starting point, by referencing dates of notable events from my life growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and by looking at a past where society was more political (even for a 10 year old growing up in Birmingham) I hope it will make the viewer ask questions about where we are today. What does it mean to live in a multicultural society? What it is to be political within that society? The last point for me is especially important, as we seem to be living in a time that is as brutal as it was when I was growing up in Birmingham.
* All images by the brilliant Stephen J Morgan