“…their future will be as black as coal itself, and the weekly wage packet will be a giro-handout…”
– Marsha Marshall, Women Against Pit Closures, at the beginning of the strike, 1984
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike. A book by a German photographer, only now published, offers the viewer a rare glimpse inside the upended lives of local families during a hugely divisive period in modern British history.
Taking inspiration from Robert Frank and his great opus on American culture, Michael Kerstgens, a young photography student at the time, follows his family contacts to South Wales before heading to the hotbeds of social upheaval in the mining towns of South Yorkshire.
The photographer manages to secure remarkable access, particularly through a chance encounter with a man on his first day at the NUM office in Barnsley by the name of Stuart ‘Spud’ Marshall. Trusted by the communities, he now becomes an invisible eye, free to make some astonishingly intense pictures of Union meetings and record insights into pivotal roles played by the Miners’ wives.
These pictures show the subtle bonds and ties of family that are sometimes difficult to articulate, but are nevertheless integral to stories of private and working lives connected and interwoven in ways which seem both familiar and strangely abstract. The images in places feel like a sooty archeological archive, such is the patina of coal dust covering every surface. The use of monochrome connects the subjects to a strong pictorial lineage, to moral questions of right and wrong and, perhaps more viscerally, to the very elements of the land under their feet. Adding to this sense of other-worldliness the pictures of NUM meetings, veiled in a tobacco haze, are striking for their visual aesthetic, but are made more profound as historical documents of a very particular time and place.
The solemn tone is given a refreshing and relevant counter-point with the inclusion of some witty party pictures.
The last quarter of the book brings us up to date with Spud and the town, who both, as Kerstgens puts it, ‘never entirely got over the strike and its aftermath.’
The passage of time has imbued Michael Kerstgens’ important photobook a sense of perspective and confirms feelings of injustice; less about the simple economic facts regarding the (un)sustainability of the pits themselves, and more to do with the void left behind after such enormous and immediate social change.
See more of Kerstgens work and buy the book here. All photos ©Michael Kerstgens
The Reunion aired on BBC Radio4 recently brought together five interested parties from the strike, allowing an opportunity to see if thirty years have entrenched or softened views formed at the time.