Nick Hedges was a student when he began to take photographs of bad housing conditions across the country. Forty years later, he tells Shelter Stories how this experience shaped his life.
I was 23 and in my final year at Birmingham College of Art when I took the first of the series of photographs capturing slum housing conditions in the 1960s and 1970s.
The local housing trust in Birmingham asked our class to photograph how people were living in the inner city.
I wanted to address social affairs in my work and so I took the subject on as my final year project. I worked on it for four months.
While I was making final preparations for the exhibition in a spare office at the housing trust, a man entered the room. He stared at the photos as I pasted them onto big boards. He said that they were good and disappeared. The man was Des Wilson, who was the founding director of Shelter. He later asked me to be Shelter’s in-house photographer. It was my first job.
In those early years of my career, I carried my 35mm Leica camera with me across the country – from Bradford to London to Glasgow photographing the conditions in which people lived.
Sometimes a journalist accompanied me and interviewed the subjects. At other times I went alone and knocked on doors. I encountered no hostility – the people I approached were open and heartened that someone was taking an interest in them.
I found myself in the middle of truly awful scenes. I never became immune to it. What did surprise me was how cheerful some of the people were despite their appalling living conditions. Of course, most people were resigned to their lot. But I met a smiling teenager, pushing her baby in a buggy through a Gorbals tenement block in Glasgow. She had to carry the buggy up three flights of stairs to get to her flat.
She told me that just a few days before, she had been in bed with her husband and they had both woken up to loud noises. It was a wrecking ball, demolishing the tenement block. Her husband ran out screaming for the demolition to stop. They hadn’t thought that people could still be living there. Eventually, and with no great haste, the family was rehoused.
At the other end of the spectrum, I met some people who were so desperate – they didn’t know how they would survive. In Birmingham I met and photographed a woman whose children slept on wet and stained cushions underneath old coats. The windows were broken and there was snow on the ground outside. It was freezing. It was additionally poignant for me because I realised that it was my first family portrait.
I followed one family who had lived in a squalid basement flat in a Whitechapel tenement block to their new home in Loughborough. The difference in the wellbeing of the children was remarkable. They had a garden, somewhere safe to play at last. Their faces and personalities were so much brighter. It was over a hundred miles away from the life that they had known, but I could imagine them having a much better future.
Those first years of my professional life were hugely important. They shaped my understanding of documentary photography – how images can serve a purpose. In the years which followed, I became committed to photographing ordinary life and the everyday person. I never chased after anything more exotic.
There is no single picture that I am most proud of. The people’s words, their stories, told to the journalists as I photographed them are just as important. Together they mean more than any single image can.
I haven’t forgotten any of the names of people I photographed or the conversations we had 40 years ago. They are just as clear in my mind today as if they happened yesterday.
Make Life Worth Living, an exhibition of Nick’s work will show at the Science Museum until January 2015.
All photographs © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford.