New Acquisitions Highlight: Mark Neville’s Photobooks
Mark Neville (b. 1966) is a photographer known for his multi-layered social documentary projects.
I first came across Neville’s work when visiting the Scottish Parliament where I saw his large format photograph ‘Annie and Snowy’ (2008) which explores the complicated relationship between landowners and tenants. Although Neville was commissioned by the landowners, the mise-en-scène of this photograph conveys the complexity of the situation – it is simultaneously humorous, theatrical and poignant, as well as politically polarised. I was mesmerised.
Trying to see and read more about Mark Neville’s work, I found out that although many of his documentary series have been published as photobooks, they are not commercially available and therefore often also not found in public libraries. I was thus extremely surprised to locate three of Neville’s books in St Andrews Special Collections, acquired directly from the photographer. Two of them – Deeds Not Words (2011) and the Battle Against Stigma (2015) – entered the collection as recently as 2015.
Deeds Not Words was Neville’s second photobook. Shot over eighteen months in 2010-2011, it chronicles life in Corby, Northamptonshire in the aftermath of a court case against the Corby Borough Council. The Council lost the case and was prosecuted for negligence in toxic waste management which caused sixteen children to be born with congenital disorders of hands and feet.
Neville’s book not only documents some of the claimants of the court case but the town’s life in general. He depicts scenes of Corby’s Scottish heritage as well as polemicises modern society’s fixation with body image and beauty. Many of the photographs portray youth roughly of the same age as the claimants, participating in beauty pageants and dancing at parties. Although most of the photographs are unstaged, the lit faces and dark backgrounds make them look like Renaissance paintings. Somewhat unusually to documentary photography, the sublime beauty of the images is sometimes mixed with subtle humour which in my opinion can be interpreted as a visual representation of British character.
Although photographs dominate the first section of the book, Deeds Not Words is more than a plain and passive picture book. Neville compiled the book to raise awareness of the consequences of mishandling toxic waste. In addition to sixty photographs, the book also contains interviews with some of the claimants, and scientific evidence on pollutants and birth defects. The book was self-published by Neville and only 500 copies were produced for distribution to the local councils as well as a few selected libraries.
Neville’s latest publication, Battle Against Stigma was compiled after his three month artist residency in Helmand, Afghanistan in 2011. Although he was commissioned to document daily life in the army bases, Neville decided to shift the project’s focus onto PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when he struggled to adjust after his return to the UK. Similarly to Deeds Not Words, Battle Against Stigma consists of photographs (volume 1) and scientific research (volume 2). Neville’s decision to link PTSD research with photographs from Helmand was not well received by the Ministry of Defence who ordered the UK Border Force to seize the photobooks. Only 1,000 copies of the book reached the UK and were disseminated to various mental health services and libraries.
Battle Against Stigma also investigates the society’s obsession with body image, especially with the healthy, masculine body – the ultimate symbol of warfare. The photographs of young muscular bodies are not only contrasted with the scientific texts about PTSD, but with images of Afghan children whose lives are equally affected by the war. These children are often depicted in passing (usually whilst out on foot patrol with troops) and without adults, making the viewer painfully aware of the harsh realities of the war in Afghanistan as well as our ignorance of it.
Neville’s photobooks are complex. With a few exceptions, (such as images of Afghan children where Neville was forbidden to leave the patrol car), his photographs are usually produced in collaboration with those whose portraits appear in its pages, whilst still retaining his distinctive style. At the same time Neville is not afraid to address wider social and political issues with his subtle yet sharp images. To be able to view and read these photobooks in St Andrews is thus a rare opportunity.
MA Student, School of Art History