Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Tish will open DocFest
"Details leap out from the photographs, not just the faces of those she captured, but the twist of cigarette smoke, metal ashtrays recalling the tang of wet ash, plasters on scrubbed knees." | Photo: Ella Murtha

Documentary photographer Tish Murtha is not a household name but the reason for that is not a lack of talent, as Paul Sng’s intimate and celebratory documentary shows. Her photos of life for working class people in the impoverished district of Elswick, near the north bank of the Tyne on the outskirts of Newcastle are placed front and centre in this film which, thanks to the central presence of her daughter Ella, comes from the heart.

Tish was from a large family in Elswick herself and, as one of the many contributors who knew her puts it, “If you want to photograph the tribe, you’ve got to be part of the tribe”. Tish wasn’t just part of the tribe, though, this film shows the concerted efforts she always made to get to know the people she was shooting over time. Her work was the polar opposite of what has become known as “poverty porn” - she captured the joy and resilience of neighbourhoods brought low by unemployment and a government that viewed unions as something to be crushed at any cost. In her photographs, children are seen playing with what they can find, while adults are captured in pubs. In a later body of work, she captures the raw beauty of sex workers in Soho.

Details leap out from the photographs, not just the faces of those she captured, but the twist of cigarette smoke, metal ashtrays recalling the tang of wet ash, plasters on scrubbed knees.

Dubbed, at one point the “Demon Snapper” for pointing out the militaristic underpinning of children’s bands in the north-east, Sng and Ella explore how Tish engaged with her critics, ready for the intellectual fight. Through speaking to her family and friends, Ella probes at the collateral damage of the politics of the Thatcher years and how the iniquities of a benefits system that is so broad brush and punitive it easily sanctions the sick linger on in the current moment. Edited with a suppleness by Ling Lee, Angela Slaven and Lindsay Watson, Tish’s writing is voiced to give her a strong presence, while judicious snippets of impressionistic re-enactment help recall the era in which she worked.

Sng’s film stands not just as testimony to Tish’s talent and perseverance but as an indictment of an arts system which, to this day, still favours those from wealthy - frequently southern - backgrounds who have the cushion of family money and, quite often, nepotistic infrastructure that helps them get an “in”. “History is so posh,” someone notes, but Tish wasn’t interested in that. She caught the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations from a different angle, with Sng emphasising her skill by running some of her photos alongside archive footage of events surrounding the celebration.

While Sng and Ella use Tish’s work as a jumping off point for wider considerations of social exclusion, inequality and politics, they do it in a way that retains the focus on the photographer’s life, opinions and work. This is an ode to flair and perseverance but also a lament for how easily those things can be lost when they come up against systemic inequalities that still exist today.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2023
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A working-class photographer captures the impact of Thatcherism on the north of England but is unable to escape the poverty and inequality she exposed.
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Director: Paul Sng

Starring: Trish Murtha

Year: 2023

Runtime: 90 minutes

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