“I want to photograph policemen kicking kids.”
In a documentary who’s subject is that of a phenomenal and largely unknown (an act of criminality in itself) photographer, the above quote (uttered during a college interview) clearly shows that the words within, pack as much punch as the images, and said images, are genuinely some of the best social reportage I’ve ever seen.
Tish (2023) comes from the ever inspiring direction, perseverance and social activism of Paul Sng, who FLUSH have been following, admiring and shouting from the heights about since his 2015 doc Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, and subsequent films. Altogether, they become a genuine selection box of various subjects and topics, yet share the collective core trait of bringing much needed light and exposure to fascinating social economic stories, that either out of negligence, deliberate suppression, or actively ignored by mainstream media. A media which is beyond doubt, run and orchestrated by individuals of significant privileged social backgrounds.
In theory that privilege shouldn’t be an issue if what everyone sees on screen accurately represents the world, themselves, people and society around them now, or their youth. If they don’t, then there’s a reason for that, and as the world we live in is increasingly led by active propaganda on every level, controlling a particular narrative that serves an agenda, or indeed, the active censoring of information and images that show heinous acts in the raw light of truth (just look at the ‘reporting’ on Palestine), the likes of Tish truly are some of the last bastions of hope, particularly when we’re on the cusp of AI technology, where we might never to be able to trust what we are looking at ever again.
Patricia Anne ‘Tish’ Murtha grew up in Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne. Born 1956 in South Shields, not far from Newcastle, she lived with her 9 other siblings in the significantly socially deprived working class area, in fact, it’s clear from the countless and startling images in the doc, that Elswick really wasn’t far from a Dickensian tenement, ‘darkness on the edge of town’ as described by her sister Eileen, where prowling stranger danger was a regular reality for local kids.
The results of the Lotto of life, she was effectively actively cursed by birth. Despite the derelict buildings fencing the environment of her childhood (looking like a bomb site from WWII), and the horrendous lack of support by governments, particularly the cruelty of the Tories under Thatcher, Tish definitely never received the political memo proclaiming ‘opportunity wasn’t for the likes of her’.
As faith would have it, she stumbled across a camera on one of their ‘treasure hunts’ in a local derelict building. The seed was sown, and with a series of events and support from friends, she had the opportunity to try her hand at photography, a medium that instantly captured and encapsulated her voice, beliefs, subjects, and people’s ingrained ability/desire to find, and share joy, regardless of their economic situation. Even from the very first experimental images that are shown in the film, it is staggeringly clear that there’s a remarkable innate talent before us, which given the right backing, could and should be world beating. If that was the case though, we wouldn’t have needed this documentary.
Class permeates every single aspect of society in the UK, maybe it’s indoctrination is more apparent to foreigners such as my self, as that’s the thing about it’s insidious power, the subject just accepts it as the norm, it’s what they’ve been conditioned since birth to never question, which of course maintains its cruelty. How else can folk wave flags at a passing gold carriage, whilst not far away, hundreds of destitute sleep in tents on the street.
Regardless of her background, Tish intuitively knew to record her surroundings, family and people, silently telling their stories in phenomenal single static moments. I’m not sure I’ve seen her work before, but to see them on a big screen is pure wonderment. There’s instinctive elements of German Expressionism, stark, harsh, unforgiving contrasting light, stunning composition, all emphasised by black and white film, that not only is on par with the world renowned photographer to the music elite Anton Corbijn, but personally I think surpass his work, due to mesmerising empathy she has with the subject, and a naturalistic fearlessness, bursting with life, like tenacious flowers in cracks of concrete. You absolutely could not direct these shots, they are frozen time capsule windows, not only into another era, but another world. Unfortunately, this world also has many brutal similarities with the current state of the UK, in social economic abuse, indifference to an ever increasing strata of ordinary people, corruption of position, gatekeeping opportunity, and basically inherent contempt from the privileged inept that maintains the system to serve only them, the last 13 years in particular.
As mentioned, there are reasons Tish is not a household name, and the film respectfully (beautifully keeping with Tish’s wonderful take no shit attitude), via the guidance of her daughter Ella, brings us on the journey of her life, and the barriers that hindered her growth. Suffice to say, bigotry, sexism and class prejudice were coal dust thick in the 70s/80s, and not a great deal better in 2023. The film follows through the various fascinating topics and subjects that grabbed her eye at different stages, as each and every chapter unfolds, the mind explodes with the realisation of her potential, the awe of what’s before us, and the rage of what she actively wasn’t supported to chase. Her relentless truth was the equivalent of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, she rightly refused to pay deference, calling herself ‘the demon snapper’.
With each and every tale spoken, particularly the pitch perfect voice over by Maxine Peake of Tish’s writing, it becomes clear that she is someone that an entire country could and should have got behind. Effectively a war reporter, whose work would have covered Life Magazine on a monthly basis, my admiration for Tish, her work, her family and friends, and the doc itself, grew exponentially as it went on. The fact that this war is effectively silent, and has been going on for generations, makes Tish’s work and films like this all the more essential, there’s no such thing as ‘blissful ignorance’, there’s just exploitation and contempt.
I’ve seen the film a few times now, with each viewing becoming more potent, courageous, vital, and staggeringly beautiful. I want to say that Tish is absolutely one of the greatest artists the UK has aver produced, but the term artist feels wrong, a disservice to her staggering honesty and integrity, so I’ll revise it to one of the greatest people, and a genuine ambassador for the finest qualities of this country, none of which involve waving a flag.
More information about Tish Murtha and her work can be found at: http://www.tishmurtha.co.uk/
Tish is currently holding select screenings around the UK, fro details check https://www.modernfilms.com/tish