The work of Jim Mortram, and his long term documentary project ‘Small Town Inertia’ is something that I have been inspired by for some time and I was thrilled that the Side Gallery would be showing the work. For seven years Mortram collaborated with members of his community in the small market town of Dereham in Norfolk, producing a body of work that is simultaneously uplifting and empowering while raging against the injustices of a society that has become fractured and marginalised through government austerity measures. This is work that has the double aim of providing agency and a voice to the people in the images while having a direct political edge which angrily demands social justice. The subjects covered are difficult – disability, substance abuse, self harm and mental illness, and yet, there is also strength, resilience, dignity and hope present in each photograph.
An important consideration about the work is that Mortram is most definitely a part of this world and not an outsider who visits to make photographs before disappearing – in my view this understanding and empathy he has for the people he photographs is evident and is what separates it from other work in the documentary tradition. He describes photography as having saved his life – giving him a creative outlet and enabling him to make connections. Mortram is a full time carer for his mother who suffers from severe epilepsy, and in the opening talk for the exhibition, he movingly recounts a period of his life where he was so alienated and depressed due to the emotional and financial burdens he faced that he did not speak for a year. He was given a camera by a friend and encouraged to go out and take photographs, the use of black and white was a practical, rather than aesthetic choice as the old monitor he bought could not display colour accurately. Slowly, he began to take photographs of people he came into contact with in his community, and perhaps most importantly, record their testimony – the use of text in ‘Small Town Inertia’ is significant in both being able to understand the work and to give the people in the photographs a voice and the ability to tell their stories and share their personal experiences. In an interview with BJP, Mortram says this about the aims and intentions of ‘Small Town Inertia’:
“The majority of people I deal with feel they don’t have a voice; listening, helping share those unheard voices, serves to amplify them, to take them from their isolation into the world. If they are about one thing, my pictures are about the endurance some people need just to survive today… The most important thing is telling their story… I’ve always felt it a duty to be that conduit, that link in a chain to take voices and amplify them in the hope of them being heard.” (Hamilton, 2018: 49)
Lewis Bush describes what separates Mortram from other ‘socially concerned’ documentary photographers whose work can be patronising and paternalistic:
“While many documentary photographers ‘study down’ to use Laura Nader’s term, Mortram looks to people he shares something of a common experience with. Working with great patience and sometimes not photographing for months or years while he establishes relationships, the protagonists of Mortram’s stories are in many cases more his fiends than his photographic subjects. In the process of forming these connections Mortram has a knack for uncovering the enormous potential and individuality in people, something the state seems so often to miss entirely.” (Mortram, 2017: 6)
Ultimately I find this body of work, and Mortram himself, immensely inspiring. On the surface these are images that are in the documentary tradition and language of black and white photojournalism, but this is purely a superficial impression. Looking at the images it quickly becomes apparent that they are made from a defiantly subjective viewpoint which seeks to allow the viewer to understand and empathise with people whose lives are likely to be completely alien to them. Each photograph stands alone and many show they are posed rather than captured in a candid fashion, but, Mortram does not subscribe to the notion of the decisive moment – the work is meant to be seen as a series and viewing this way enables the viewer a brief insight into the lives of the people in the photographs. The ability of Mortram to grow the project and audience outside of traditional methods is also significant – Small Town Inertia originated as a website promoted through social media and the photobook was crowdfunded. Subsequent projects are self funded through print sales which means Mortram can continue to produce work that is true to his personal voice, intentions and without interference. The drive for Mortram to create these stories is inspiring and I anticipate what he will make next.
Hamilton, P. (2018) Small Town Inertia. British Journal of Photography.
Macpherson, J. (2017) Small Town Inertia. Duckrabbit Blog, 21st September 2017. Available at: https://www.duckrabbit.info/blog/2017/09/small-town-inertia/ [accessed 18th February 2019]
Mortram, J.A. (2017) Small Town Inertia. Liverpool: Bluecoat Press.
Smyth, D. (2019) Q&A: JA Mortram on his ten-year project Small Town Inertia. BJP online, 7th January 2019. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2019/01/qa-j-a-mortram-on-his-ten-year-project-small-town-inertia/ [accessed 12th February 2019]
Stelfox, D. (2014) ‘I photograph people who don’t have a voice’: Jim Mortram’s Norfolk portraits. The Guardian, 19th February 2014. Available at: https://amp.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/19/people-photograph-dont-have-voice-jim-mortram-norfolk-portraits?CMP=share_btn_tw&__twitter_impression=true [accessed 9th February 2019]