Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2091

Waged London: photographer Larry Herman on his new project

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
Award winning social documentary photographer Larry Herman spoke to Simon Basketter about his new project capturing the lives of hourly paid workers in the capital
Issue 2091
London Transport underground agency cleaner
London Transport underground agency cleaner

Larry Herman was born in New York, and moved to Britain during the Vietnam War. Since then he has lived in Glasgow and Sheffield, but mostly in London.

At art school Larry trained as a sculptor. He started taking photographs in his mid-20s and has since produced several books.

In the early 1980s he stopped photography to work in steel mills, foundries and on London Underground. He returned to professional photography in 1993.

His most recent book, Land, Land, Land! looks at the living conditions for rural African Americans in the US South.

What prompted you to start the Waged London project?

I always need something to do that I think is important, something with enough scope to occupy me for the several years I take to work on my independent projects. Clearly our period of time is marked by war – but it is also marked by mass migration.

According to the United Nations, today there are more people living in towns and cities than there are living in the countryside. That will have a profound effect in the future. We are living in a world where more and more people have no other means of sustenance than selling their labour.

I’m from New York, and when I was a child New York and London used to compete for the title of the biggest city in the world.

Now they are mid-ranking cities as other huge cities have grown – though London is still one of the “heartland” cities of the world, of course.

So millions of people are being economically compelled off the land and towards the cities. They will starve to death unless they accept being forced into selling their labour.

I wanted to put that process of people selling their labour in the centre of this project. So I photograph wherever people work. I define that quite widely, but all the photographs in the project will relate to people’s working experiences in some way.

What sort of difficulties have you encountered with the project?

I had to narrow the project down, so I chose to focus on people who sell their labour by the hour, rather than salaried workers – though, at one level, that is a false demarcation.

Initially the project was called Low Wage London, but I felt that title was too subjective. For instance, I met a family with six low incomes that when combined meant they did OK. In contrast a family with one income of £18 an hour would be really struggling.

I have come across difficulties taking pictures of people in work. Managers have a lot to hide and often simply don’t want me around. Getting access can be difficult.

I don’t want to put people in any sort of jeopardy with their employer.So I do a lot of photographing from the rear or with people’s faces hidden. I also don’t photograph people without their permission and I deliberately don’t use names or even identify specific workplaces.

It’s beyond my comprehension how a person can be “illegal”. I don’t care whether they’re here with the sanction of the state or not. People have a right to be where they are simply on the basis that that’s where they are.

Is the Waged London project partly about bringing the hidden into view?

Many migrant workers certainly are hidden from view – but so, in a way, is everyone who sells their labour. The media keep us all hidden – most notably during strikes, but also in many other ways and on a daily basis.

When images of working people do emerge, they tend to be shown as entertainment, or as victims, or as people who just produce distress and heartache for us all.

For example, Africa is full of intense political activity. Millions of people struggle every day to organise a better society that can meet the needs of everyone. All of this is either ignored or reported in a way that portrays people as helpless, as passive victims and nothing more.

I am in awe of people’s dignity – the dignity that comes from an ability to put two feet on the floor every morning, but also from the determination to resist and organise.

How do your political convictions fit into your work as a documentary photographer?

I am inspired by the world as it is. I see myself as a political person who happens to be a photographer. I define myself politically.

Of course, I also have ideals of how the world should be, but my motivation and inspiration come from the reality of the world.

As a social documentary photographer, I am recording my the world around me as part of the process of influencing it.

I’m very aware that we have all sorts of things that we don’t have to fight for, because other people have fought for them in the past. But we do have to constantly defend those gains.

For instance, there is an appalling attack on women’s rights in Britain at the moment – the growth of porno‑culture, and the chipping away at the time limits on abortion.

But there is always a level of resistance that provides inspiration and a sense of dignity. If there wasn’t resistance, they wouldn’t need violence to defend the status quo.

The real thing, the interesting thing, is to photograph the world in resistance. People refusing to acquiesce, refusing to be passive. I want to move people from being the passive objects of history to being its originators.

What do you look for in an image to reflect this political commitment?

It’s important not to have anything redundant in the photographs – everything in the image must contribute to the succinct statement I’m making.

In this sense still photography is closer to poetry than to film, because it says something very precise.

I also always use captions, sometimes long ones and sometimes very brief ones. They give a context to the image and help prevent it from being used in an abusive way.

If I was the only photographer in the world, I would do things differently. But as it is, it is far too easy to photograph people with their dignity down – it is too easy to photograph degradation.

So at one level, I’m using people as metaphors to tell the world what I think of it. When I photograph, say, a cleaner in a hotel, I want that image to ram home what that person is doing in numerous different ways.

I also want the image to be aesthetically pleasing. I’m not a news photographer in the sense of simply firing the camera into events. Some news photographers criticise me for being too “arty” – but I also get art photographers criticising me for being too “newsy”!

What do you think of the idea that photography should be “neutral”?

I am recording my period of time, but I am not a camera. I don’t see my role as some kind of “community photographer”.

I want to show the reality of people’s lives. This means interpreting and editing the world in a certain way.

There is a battle of ideas in our society. Millions of people die for reasons that are eminently solvable. Natural events turn into catastrophes because of the system we live under.

So you can rebuild New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – but not for the people who lived there, apart from those who will be needed to service the tourists.

But people are resisting everywhere – though not always in a particularly organised way. In that context, it is important to throw your lot in with the people who are resisting.

There is immense coverage of the US election, but I hardly ever hear a report that makes sense. People parachute in and observe – but they don’t relate to the reality in front of them. At best it’s pretentious and at worst downright erroneous.

They never, or rather hardly ever, interview ordinary people – instead they interview themselves. When I was last doing a project in the US I never met anyone who owned a single thing – yet those are precisely the people who are kept out of the debate.

The dominant values are those of the status quo. We are products of society where there are sides. And if you say you’re neutral, then you are in fact taking sides.

Class struggle permeates every element of our society. Sometimes it is difficult to see – but it is there. You sometimes have to fight hard to bring to light – but it is there. And in the face of class struggle there is no neutrality. You either align yourself with the oppressors of the world, or you take the opposite side.

Whenever I’ve been in a situation, I’ve chosen sides – in Ireland, the Miners’ Strike, or wars in southern Africa. And whenever I’ve done that, people have defended me back.

Waged London will be on show at the Marxism festival of resistance in July this year. For more details about Larry‘s work go to »

Airport hotel room attendent
Airport hotel room attendent
Chinatown restaurant porter (Pics: copyright Larry Herman)
Chinatown restaurant porter (Pics: copyright Larry Herman)

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance