Film

Tish Murtha was a brilliant photographer who fought Thatcher with her camera. She deserved better

Paul Sng is the director of Tish, a new documentary exploring the life of Tish Murtha, a photographer who recorded the unseen side of 1980s Britain in decline

Black and white photo of child leaning elbows on a wall

Glenn on the wall, Elswick Kids (1978) Tish Murtha (c) Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

Tish Murtha was a working-class photographer from the north-east of England who documented inequality in Britain, primarily during the 1970s and 1980s. For Tish, taking photographs was an act of rebellion. She used her camera as a weapon to attack Margaret Thatcher and the Tory government, whose free-market economics and de-industrialisation policies decimated working-class areas across the country. 

In Tish’s photographs we see the fun, mischief and ingenuity of working-class communities. She had a great empathy for the people she made images with and wanted to show the world their value. As well as being a brilliant photographer, Tish was also an incisive political writer.

Black and white: a young girl jumps on an abandoned car
SuperMac, Elswick Kids (1978) – Tish Murtha (c) Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

In the essay that accompanies her Youth Unemployment series, she interrogates the detrimental impact of Thatcherism on the community where she grew up – lacerating Tory policy as “vandalism on a grand scale”.  

Deeply concerned about the high levels of youth unemployment at the time, Tish warned that this abandonment of young people would have dire consequences and that the future would be bleak for younger generations facing “a state of premature redundancy the minute they pass through the school gates for the last time”. Her words proved to be prescient. 

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Within the arts world, Tish was an outsider. She couldn’t be pigeon-holed into middle-class cliches about the working-class struggle. She did things the way she thought was correct, rather than compromise the integrity of her work to achieve success.  

Unfortunately, like so many working-class artists, Tish was failed by a system that often ignores, misrepresents and marginalises working-class lives and stories. Despite early acclaim, she was never able to make a living as a photographer and died in poverty, her work largely undervalued within the photography world and practically obscured beyond it. 

There’s a certain terror in knowing how messed up the world is. Tish confronted that terror and told us how bad things were and how they were going to get worse. That’s incredibly courageous. Forty years later, these images and words have retained an urgency that speaks to the concerns faced by people struggling with poverty in the present day. The inequality Tish documented is seen in the 4.3 million children currently living in child poverty – the majority of them in the north of England.   

Black and white: six kids carrying instruments walk through a housing estate
Kenilworth Road Kids, Cruddas Park, Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) – Tish Murtha (c) Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

I believe documentaries should be curious and ask questions, rather than be overtly judgmental. I’m not sure whether cinema can directly influence our politics, but a film may influence what its audience thinks.

We made Tish to right a wrong and show people how brilliant Tish Murtha was – both as a photographer and as a political activist. This film is a celebration of her stunning photography and also a commentary that invites us to question what value society places on working-class artists and communities.  

Tish is in cinemas now.

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