Legacy documentary for social change -Survival Programmes

Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities was a book published in 1982 by three photographers: Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor.


Survival Programmes comprises photographs (all black and white), interview transcripts, drafts and other materials relating to the book Survival Programmes by the Exit Photography Group (Nicholas Battye / Chris Steele-Perkins / Paul Trevor). The photographs and interviews were made between 1974 and 1979, and record life in Britain’s inner urban areas in the 1970s. ‘Survival Programmes’ was a Gulbenkian funded project to document inner city environments and lives in the later 1970s. The original photographs were used in a travelling exhibition, and are kept by the Side Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Review by the publisher:

Survival Programmes presents simply and vividly the existing situation in Britain’s inner cities. It documents the scale and complexity of inner city deprivation–and the different responses to it–in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Belfast. The experience is communicated in the form of photographic and verbal record. The photographs provide a narrative sequence and can be read independently of the text, which is from tape-recordings of people speaking from their own experience. The two narratives develop independently yet in parallel. The unfolding relationship of image and text is complex, uneven, revealing and open to many different interpretations.

Exercise read the article ‘Survival Programmes’ in Eight magazine (V5N1, June 2006)

In June 2006 the book Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities celebrated its 25th anniversary since publication, making it now 35 years old and, in so many ways it is still relevant to today’s society and today’s photographers. The British Library, according to the article, was going to launch a Survival Programmes Archive and this I feel is important as we need to look back to move forward, as recognised by Elizabeth McCausland, the progress of documentary photography ‘lies in the history of other movements in photography.'(1939) Although not a different movement we have to study what went before in order to learn and move on, or understand how and why things are considered to be documentary.

When they formed Exit in 1974, all three men were either squatting or sofa surfing, experiencing first hand the deprivations and problems being faced by generations and impoverished neighbourhoods across the board. Thus they certainly fulfilled the criteria of being immersed within the situation they wanted to capture and narrate. They were also following in the tradition of ‘investigators[who] concentrated on describing the conditions or work and housing and presented a picture of people enduring lives of great hardship…’ (Wells. 1997, p.72)

Sadly, many of the issues they ‘grappled’ with are still prevalent today: race, religion, class and justice still rear their ugly heads, with many of these issues thrust to the fore due to Brexit and the high running emotions with regards to immigration and refugee status. All in all a ‘sorry testament to how little things have changed.’

Unlike the early work that has been mentioned, such as the FSA and Lewis Hine, their images are said to not promote the need for social change, rather they instill a mood not of pity ‘but of outrage.’ Some of the layout of the book can be seen on Chris Steele-Perkins webpage.

Wells also posited that they were ‘more concerned with exploring class subjectivity than with  [dicovering] the ‘facts’.’ (1997)

‘The photographs were sequenced from community through frustration into anger in 4 chapters called Growth, Promise, Welfare and Reaction…The format of the book was simple, one photograph on the right side of the page and interview text on the left.’

Each section within the magazine spread had its own subtitle: In Among it All, Written Off, A Tale, The Finest Country in The World. These I found to be clever titles, either direct quotes or a play on words from the interviewees. Like the review by the publisher says the text is just as important as the images with ‘the two narratives’ developing independently ‘yet in parallel.’ Hearing the voices and concerns of the residents add weight to the images being viewed.

Being shot in B&W was a creative as well as a financial decision, as revealed in this article by Chris Steele-Perkins; they processed their own films at home. Viewing the images on line it is difficult to see the finer details and subtly within the frames. They all appear to be grainy and the majority of the photographs I have seen do paint a depressing picture of the era. Without having colour images to compare and contrast it is difficult to say if colour images would appear as stark and emotive, although I doubt it. B&W does tend to create a certain atmosphere.


McCausland, E. (1939) Documentary Photography

Steele-Perkins, C. (2014) Survival programmes – book preview. Available at: http://www.chrissteeleperkins.com/books/survival-programmes.html (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Trevor, P. (2014) Ideas series: Exit photography group – | Photoworks. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/exit-photography-group/ (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Wells, L. (ed.) (1997) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

(No Date) Available at: http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto851survivalprogrammes (Accessed: 6 December 2016).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s