Life in the margins with Chris Killip

Much can happen in the margins of society; often unnoticed and frequently ignored. Photographer Chris Killip, who passed away this month aged 74, explored the margins with his camera. Killip documented ways of life that were disappearing. He shone a light on marginalised communities, capturing an honest portrayal of their day-to-day existence.

Manx-born Killip won a two-year fellowship from Northern Arts in 1975 to photograph the north-east of England. He stayed for fifteen years, culminating with the 1988 publication of his seminal photobook In Flagrante.

Whilst much can be, and often is, written about Killip and his extensive portfolio, there is one of his photographs that I feel encapsulates everything about his work.

'Youth On A Wall' was taken in Jarrow, South Tyneside in 1976. I was born a few years earlier and lived just a few miles away from where this image was taken. It was a time of change in the area, and sadly not for the better. Unemployment rates were climbing towards the 20% mark with many classed as long-term unemployed. The number of children moving on to further education was low. Certain industries which the area relied upon started to decline. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and soon after the collieries started to close. The borough of South Tyneside faced many challenges. Times were bleak for many.

'Youth On A Wall', 1976, by Chris Killip

Killip's photograph of the youth on a wall encapsulates the feeling of many living in South Tyneside at that time. There's a feeling of frustration and despair mixed with courage and resilience. There's an expression of fatigue on his face, yet he is dressed and ready to leap in to action should the need demand. His clothes appear to be hand-me-downs, but they are worn with a level of self-respect. HIs boots are scuffed but more than functional. His back is to the wall - he is curled up, protecting his vulnerabilities but still exposed to the outside environment which he cannot control. His long-term future looks difficult. He may be left on the metaphorical shelf - just like the wall he is perched upon.

This photograph not only portrays how it felt for many in South Tyneside around this time, it also encapsulates the life and challenges being felt by the borough as if it was a living, breathing entity. Many people in the UK and beyond were unaware of how people were living in Jarrow. Unlike today, information was not shared through unlimited internet sites, television channels and social media platforms. Much was unknown to the masses. Chris Killip's role was to make it known, to give it a voice and create a platform for its expression.

To be able to load so much meaning and emotion into one image is a skill few can master. Killip was remarkable. He has inspired many. He will inspire many more.

Rest in peace, Mr Killip. Your work here is done.

You can view more of Chris Killip's work here:

Chris Killip - Photographer

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