At the time of this writing, the official unemployment rate in the US is 9%. This number excludes a large variety of people, incl., for example, those who gave up looking for work or those who’d prefer a full-time job over a part-time one. It’s a bit harder to come by the actual unemployment rate, in part because it depends on how you define it. If we take the US government’s U-6 rate, we get 16%. Very much related to this, the number of photographers, graphic designers and writers I have talked to recently who told me about severe problems getting jobs is mind-blowing. I am not active in the field of commercial or editorial photography, but from what I hear there is some severe howling and gnashing of the teeth going on. So even though it might just be a coincidence, it still seems entirely appropriate that Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring was just re-published by Errata Editions. (more)
Produced in the early 1980s in Britain, Beyond Caring shows the interiors of unemployment offices and the large crowds of people waiting for their appointments. The offices, we are told in the essay by David Chandler, had been designed to deal with up to 600,000 people, and they were completely overwhelmed by the millions of people asking for help. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said - a sentiment mirrored across the Atlantic by the American right’s mantra that “government is the problem.” Regardless of whether we agree on these sentiments or not, they have serious consequences, and Beyond Caring shows some of those consequences.
I find it interesting that there was so much interesting photography coming out of Britain as a result of its massive economic problems. There might have been a lot of people who did not care, but people like Paul Graham did care. He didn’t get official permission to take photographs in unemployment offices, so he went in anyway, with a camera at hip level or placed on a bench or chair.
And I can’t help but wonder whether there will be a contemporary version of Beyond Caring, a book produced by someone who goes out now, to take photos now, to document what this long recession - that officially is over [insert canned laughter here] - is doing. Are we all beyond caring? I don’t have an answer, and I don’t expect one right now. But I do hope that there are contemporary Paul Grahams out there.
Unlike Graham’s latest work, A Shimmer of Possibility, which feels like it is collapsing under the weight of its own artistic pretensions, Beyond Caring contains photography that is truly connected to the world, photography with a heavy dose of empathy. The photographs only look dated in a truly superficial sense because of the different clothes and hair styles.
In almost every other sense, these photographs speak to us now, in a very powerful way. Maybe we need them as a reminder that even if we can’t really change anything (at least in an immediate sense) there still is a lot to be gained from going out into the world and from showing that we care after all. We don’t owe this to anyone but ourselves.
Paul Graham: Beyond Caring, photography by Paul Graham, essays by David Chandler, Jeffrey Ladd, 104 pages, Errata Editions, 2011
Spreads from the book kindly provided by Errata Editions - thank you!