The Guardian reported that rough sleeping in England has risen for the first time in half a decade (February, 2023). According to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, an estimated 3,069 people were found sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2022. The Scottish Government reported that between April and September 2022, 1,184 people applied for council homelessness. Over 15,000 households were assessed as homeless, an increase of 6% from the previous year. In addition, 28,944 households were reported to still have open applications. These mark the highest numbers on record.
Margaret Mitchell (b. 1968) is a Scottish documentary and portrait photographer. She is best known for her sensitive and empathetic images of communities. Previous exhibitions include The Youth House (2019), a series of portraits of children and teenagers from the most socially disadvantaged areas in Glasgow, as well as In This Place (2018), an installation that looks at inequality across familial generations. The series was awarded second place in the Sony World Photography Awards in 2018 (Professional Category, Contemporary Issues) and was described by PhotoMonitor as a “stunning balance [of] vulnerability and strength.” Mitchell is interested in concepts of place – focusing on how areas can be both mental and physical. She explained to LensCulture in 2017, “Life feels somewhat static in the housing estates of central Scotland. My photographs present a personal yet universally relatable story of loss, love and survival set within a wider socioeconomic context. Against a backdrop of parental loss and limited opportunities, the family renews; it endures.”
In this self-initiated project, Mitchell worked with various individuals and organisations including Shelter Scotland, with the resulting work offering an insight into the practical and social impact of homelessness today. An Ordinary Eden is produced by Street Level Photoworks and features 36 new works created between 2019 and 2023. It captures the practical and emotional consequences of not having a permanent place of residence. Works echo documentary photographers such as Mary Ellen Mark (b. 1940), David Solomons (b. 1965) and Sandra Mickiewicz (b. 1992), centring on issues of social justice and displacement.
Images are titled according to subject names. In Ryan in his living room (2021), a man in a burgundy chequered shirt and blue jeans leans against a light pink wall. The room is unfurnished, except for a white radiator that gleams above a floor speckled with paint. In other settings, young men linger in stairwells and rooms. There is a sense of limbo, where, according to the artist, individuals occur “on the brink of something, in the midst of establishing an identity.” In a particularly arresting composition, Marcus, age 31 stares out the window in his first ever home. Snowy light streams in through the glass, casting a pallid glow over his face. He peers into a bare room, unseen and unaccessible to a viewer. Square portraits are rendered in small, local spaces, as Mitchell condenses wide-ranging topics to the most intimate of settings.
Figures, are not always discernible – clouds of smoke obscure depicted subjects. In Name Withheld (2022), a woman on a yellow bed turns to the right, wearing a pink mask over her face. The scene is intimate but reserved – a viewer is unable to make out her face, instead, issued with a black and white picture of Marilyn Monroe, hanging above the headboard. The two women are noticeably worlds apart, the former concealed, whilst the latter is instantly recognisable. Mitchell emphasises the need for safety, stability and understanding, asking how we promote social visibility for those living precarious existences.
In Mark, (2021), a man in a sleeveless red top, worn inside out, faces away from the camera, turned to the park trail. Tied around his waist is a jacket bearing the words “#ANDYSMANCLUB: IT’S OKAY TO TALK.” The piece speaks about a wider mental health crisis. 75% of suicides in the UK happen to men (National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health) whilst 14% have reported some form of depression. Further research notes 47% of men have suffered with anxiety in the past five years (Office for National Statistics, 2022). These photographs gesture towards feelings of solitude and loneliness, as the artist notes “the very human need for connection.”
Mitchell’s series is poignant because of its indication of the present. The cost of living crisis is impacting people facing homeless, affecting them disproportionately. Crisis conducted a survey in December 2022 which noted that nearly a million low-income households (943,000) were estimated to face a winter eviction. Over three million households said it was likely they would skip meals to keep up with housing payments, whilst families were 43% more likely than other units to express this. The charity states, “People paying for gas and electricity were often pre-paying, which was more expensive and left them at risk of living without heating if they ran out of money. Many people in temporary accommodation paid more for their food because of poor facilities, and left some exposed to higher travel, laundry and storage costs.”
The photographs across the series examine individuals, as their realities are amplified. In An Ordinary Eden, important questions about social responsibility are brought to the fore. Experiences of “determination and dignity but also those damaged by isolation and needless years lost” (Scottish Contemporary Art Network, 2023) are highlighted throughout this poignant body of work. The impact is profound, where each pursuit is realised – each figure wishes for an ordinary life. Mitchell concludes, “The thread that runs through is the need to belong, to lay roots and re-establish lives. It is fundamentally a projecting asking how we can do better as a society to support people.”
An Ordinary Eden
Street Level Photoworks | Until 16 July
Words: Chloe Elliott
1. © Margaret Mitchell, from the series An Ordinary Eden, courtesy of Street Level Photoworks
2. Ryan in his living room (2021) © Margaret Mitchell, from the series An Ordinary Eden, courtesy of Street Level Photoworks
3. Marcus, age 31, in his first ever home at Christmas (2020) © Margaret Mitchell, from the series An Ordinary Eden, courtesy of Street Level Photoworks
4. Mark, 2021 © Margaret Mitchell, from the series An Ordinary Eden, courtesy of Street Level Photoworks