Documentary Photographer David Wright is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From the project ‘Welsh Miners – 1977 – The end of an era‘ . To see David’s body of work, click on any image.
My name is David Gilbert Wright. I am English and was born in London where I still live.
I went to Wales in 1977 to document the miners. Little did I know that what I was seeing would quickly fade away and become a thing of the past with a matter of years. With the coming of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Government, a change was about to happen to the whole way of life of these people. It is hard to imagine how much devastation was done to the lives of the mining communities.
This is probably one of my all-time favourite portraits and it is interesting to think that it was probably one of my first. The man in this photograph appears so dignified, yet the lines on his face indicate 20 or more years of toiling down the mines to earn wages to keep his family just above the breadline. He is one of our key workers of yesteryear. Do not forget his face!
It is strange to think that the men in this photograph were our key workers in those days. We relied on miners totally for coal to produce electricity and gas, and to make iron and steel for heavy industry. Then came the Thatcher Government that decimated our manufacturing of steel, cars, ships and railways. When the current Lockdown ends it is likely we will enter a recession like no other one ever seen before and the only real wealth then will be either dug out of the ground or manufactured. Dread the thought that the whole country becomes like those Welsh villages.
They were ordinary men just like the rest of us. They led uncomplicated lives. They liked to banter with each other. Family and home life was important. Yes, they had hopes and dreams but they were realistic men. The ‘salt of the earth’.
The strikes across Wales and England throughout the 1970s were only the start to what would eventually become the bitterest industrial dispute in British history in the years of 1984-5. The Conservative Government designed the Ridley Plan following the mining strike in 1974. It was leaked in 1978, and described how the Government would defeat a nationalized coal mining strike through redundancies and pit closures. The political view in the late 70s was that trade union power was interfering with market forces, pushing up inflation. So the Union’s power had to be crushed. A common theme in Thatcher’s Britain. So the miner in this picture could see the writing on the wall but still managed to find a smile!
During the last years of the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher started a campaign to persuade the Welsh to have a national pride in their Welshness. At the same time, she began to dismantle the notion of Britishness. Key nationalised industries disappeared through her programme of privatisation including British Coal, British Steel and British Rail. One of the most important aspects of our British way of life had been the organisations that represented workers. The unions had, for years ensured that workers gained the basic requirements such as a safe workplace, reasonable shift lengths with breaks and a fair day’s’ pay for a fair day’s work. Thatcher’s Government set out to diminish trade union power and succeeded. The hard fought for better working conditions, shown in this picture of miners enjoying a cuppa in their break are often missing from the workplace today with many workers doing long shifts or on zero contracts. Unionization may seem a bad idea to some but it has a history of positive achievements.
The photograph shows a group of miners sitting waiting to go down the pit. I still find it hard to imagine what mining coal was like as a job, even after going down the pits. The work was hot, dirty and dangerous. These men did it to make a living in order to feed their families. As a nation, we needed the coal. But now, we don’t have a coal mining industry, we don’t have a steel industry and we don’t have much of a heavy engineering industry. All we have are ghost towns across Wales and Yorkshire filled with people who were once proud but now still feeling the effects of pit closures and unemployment. Now, more than ever before, we need industries that actually produce things of value that can be sold if we are to get out of what looks like the biggest recession in history is coming to our lands.
I usually only take one or two exposures. I have always believed that I know intuitively when everything comes together and it is the right time to press the shutter button. It is what Cartier Bresson called ” the decisive moment”. This photograph is an example of that ‘moment’. I was a young photographer at the time but something in this man’s face must have drawn me to him and I took the picture. I think he epitomizes what I later saw as a sense of hopelessness. Successive strikes earlier in the decade followed by redundancies, unemployment 3-day working weeks and wage freezes preceded the Thatcher Government and eventually the bitter miners strike of 1984-5. This man’s face sums it all up. His vacant eyes and downturned mouth. I don’t think I could have taken a more profound photograph to illustrate that hopelessness.
This is the penultimate photograph in the series. It is bringing to a close my response to a world where whole communities depended on the pit. It provided primary employment for the men who went down, secondary employment for the administration and day-to-day support and tertiary employment to the shops and businesses that supplied the mining companies as well as all the families of the miners. The whole village relied on the coal mine in one way or another. So it is not surprising that when an end finally came, the communities sank into a kind of depression that lasted for decades and is still plaguing some of the survivors.
This is the last picture in the series about the Welsh miners. It was taken in 1977 and shows a typical mining village. The heavy clouds gathering overhead are a metaphor for the storm that would eventually hit the region and decimate the livelihoods of everybody. The almost deserted street with its tiny terraced houses clothed in a ‘shadow’ that would extend for decades. The solitary person walking away symbolizes the ‘end’ for the village and for an Industry that had provided employment for so many over the centuries!
All images and text © David Wright
By David Wright
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