Although regularly listed as one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, we – the UK – along with most other “first world” countries are not without our problems. For example, with regard to our population, the gulf between rich and poor seems to widen on an almost daily basis, and the extremes are becoming more and more apparent. In the book Small Town Inertia, self taught photographer Jim Mortram has used his own personal experiences to inform and drive this austere, melancholy yet intensely intimate collection of images which document the lives of people struggling to cope in a system that is falling apart around them.
Mortram lives in the small town of Dereham in Norfolk. In many respects a town similar to many in the UK where increasing numbers of people are struggling to cope with the continuing cuts to welfare, benefits and a health service which is straining at the seams. Whilst neither homeless, or on the streets, these people are, through no fault of their own are living lives of isolation and segregation due to their individual disparate but also ultimately, unifying common bonds. As a long term carer for his mother, Mortram has experienced first hand the debilitating effects of effectively removing himself from society in order to look after a loved one. The mental and physical ramifications were profound, and it seems, if not for the camera his life would have continued on a bleak downward spiral. He sites photography as his saviour, and has said that when he first held a camera it “really re-connected me with myself, a moment of clarity”. In 2006 he started to photograph members of his local community with whom he identified. A blog entitled Small Town Inertia followed in 2013, and now this resulting book which shares the same name has been assembled. A moving selection of black and white portraits which document moments from the lives of this forgotten and disregarded group of people.
Irrespective of how long Mortram has been photographing, and whether he is self taught or not is completely irrelevant. The subjects themselves are friends and acquaintances all bound by their shared struggle. Through the pictures and accompanying personal quotes, a sequence of vignettes unfold. The stories run from sad to horrifying. Tales of loneliness, fear, isolation. Each person with a tale to tell, and all treated with the utmost dignity and respect. The lighting, composition and execution of these images is pitch perfect. Each image is allowed a full page, thus ensuring our complete attention, and the subjects personal statement or memory is printed on the opposing blank white page. This combination of pictures and words produces reactions encompassing any number of emotions from sadness and disbelief to frustration and anger.
With regard to the tone and feel of the pictures, when I viewed the work for the first time the gritty British films of the late fifties and early sixties known as “kitchen sink dramas” sprang to mind. Not that the pictures have a period feel to them, indeed they are timeless. However the anger, frustration and despair captured, echoes that of the characters of many of those movies. I could practically hear Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris railing in the background. The images have a subtle but unmistakable cinematic quality, full of drama and pathos. No fireworks or sensationalism, just a statement of fact and a life examined, all in one frame. I’m sure Lindsay Anderson et al would approve. In the hands of another artist you get the impression that there could well be an edge of romanticism or sentimentality applied to soften blow. These images, however manage to have both the elegant beauty of, say Soth or Steinmetz and the unflinching honesty of Clark or Goldin, whilst all the time maintaining their own identity.
I am very proud to call myself English, and have always been happy to support a system that looks after those less fortunate than myself, after all, there but for the grace of God.. Small Town Inertia more than validates the existence of such a system. The people featured have genuinely suffered in one way or another, either due to economics, or poor health (mental or physical) . Unfortunately the fact that the system is creaking at the seams, bogged down with more layers of middle management than can be imagined, and unfortunately being manipulated by some who believe it is their right to use it, purely because it is easier than the alternatives, means that the unpalatable truth is, the situation is only likely to get worse. Thankfully Mortram’s own tale shows that there is always room for hope, and with determination and a goal, situations can be changed, and darkness illuminated. However one can only hope that broader solutions can be found, or he could have captured an image of a future that awaits many more of us than we would care to imagine.
Welcome to Britain in the twenty first century. Dickens would be proud.
Small Town Inertia by Jim Mortram can be purchased here.
Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.