The Emperor Nero is rumoured to have fiddled (i) as Rome burned, some suggest it was an act of disinterest, others argue that he set the fires to clear the site for his new palace or as an excuse to persecute the Christians. Whatever the truth of the story the Emperor practicing his scales with Rome in flames beneath the Palantine is a powerful and enduring image; it has become a symbol of the delusional ruler ignoring the realties of an environmental and human disaster unfolding on his doorstep. How easy it is to find parallels two thousand years later, politicians fiddling as their constituents suffer. In John Darwell’s Farm Entrance, Southwaite it is “Blair Fiddles as Cumbria Burns”
Young activists probably see environmental issues as a contemporary political movement but as far back as the late 1940’s scientists began to report that we were poisoning the planet. In 1962 Rachel Carson published the Silent Spring, a book condemning the unregulated use of pesticides and the catastrophic damage they caused; it arguably became the catalyst for the creation of the modern environmental lobby. Pressure groups, the scientific community and journalists have all worked to keep environmental issues on the political agenda but it is often the role of the photojournalist or independent documentary photography to put the issue in the public eye, to create pictures that stick in the mind, force us to think and bring the issue to our door.
Many writers argue that we have become a social-media-led society dependant on pictures as our main means of communication but the change from the pre-internet world to now is only in volume and ease of distribution rather than a switch from spoken or written word to pictures. Apart from their ability to communicate complex information quickly and efficiently, photographs have a remarkable ability to implant themselves in our memories, some argue that we remember photographs of people better than direct visual memory, and it is this attribute that makes photography such a powerful documentary and journalistic tool.
The concerned photographer is a long tradition in photography, men and women who have harnessed their skills to expose atrocity, injustice and suffering. Many would associate this form of documentary or photojournalism with foreignness, the war in Syria, famine in Africa, civil rights in the USA or in terms of environmental disasters the Mexican Gulf oil spill (ii) and melting ice caps. However, Britain has its own tradition of purely domestic concerned photography; Don McCullin’s studies of the social and economic divide (3) or The Exit Photography Group’s (iii) study of inner city poverty in the seventies come to mind. The intent behind this work is the key to understanding documentary, the concerned photographer is lobbying for change without expecting a single photograph or one series to change the socio-political landscape, they recognise their contribution as part of a steady flow of information, ratcheting up public awareness, the drip of water that finally creates an impression in the rock below.
It is in this context that I want to review John Darwell’s Dark Days. Darwell describes himself as an “independent photographer” (7) a description I rather like with its undertones of a political statement, perhaps a necessary one in the world of environmentalists. Darwell’s practice has explored a wide range of social and environmental issues from the eerie emptiness of the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station to, my personal favourite, Indian Ocean; forty photographs of discarded drinks cans washed up by a storm onto the coast of Western Australia and A Black Dog Came Calling “An allegorical, first hand, journey through the experience of depression” (8)
Dark Days is an extensive study, undertaken over a year, of the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic on Cumbria in 2001. In a world when politics, business and the media communicate in thirty second soundbites this is a book that forces the viewer-reader to pause and reflect. As now I was living in a rural community as the crisis developed, I recall the disinfectant troughs on local farms, the closed footpaths and the news feed videos of cattle being incinerated but until reading David Black’s essay that accompanies Dark Days I cannot pretend to have understood the extent of the crisis and its impact inside the exclusion zones that were created around livestock farms. Nor did I understand the Government agencies’ slow and misguided response and how resolving the crisis became subservient to the need to project the New Labour Government in a positive light inside the Westminster and media bubble. The farmers and their animals became yet another victim of the sophisticated spin-doctors operating out of Number 1o.
Darwell doesn’t tell us this, his series is not obviously about national politics, it is a moving study of the unfolding of the crisis, the closed off landscape of Cumbria, the brutal response to cull livestock and the depressing aftermath as farms were “sterilised”. Liz Wells describes it as a “Critical Scenario in Three Acts” (6: p.9).
The structure of the book is interesting, it opens with a short preface by Roger Breeze (iv) who presents a personal perspective on the crisis but it is not until his closing paragraphs that he highlights that the mass slaughter of livestock was a solution first devised in the 17th century, a thought that supports his closing argument that the photographs are a record of the “constant failure of governments to defend Britain, and the British rural way of life.” (6: p.5)
This is followed by a much longer essay by Liz Wells, three quarters of which describes the history of British rural documentary photography before describing the structure of the book in terms that speak to the student of photography but are unlikely to appeal to the more a general reader. The inclusion of this essay as a preface to the photographs suggests that the publisher sees the audience for this work inside the academic photographic community which questions its intent as concerned documentary; an internalisation of the argument it contains rather than it being directed at the general public. There is no doubt in the quality of Wells’ essay or of the power of the photographs that follow it but in terms of contextualising the imagery, it is a weak opening. At the end of the book there is a much more revealing personal account of the crisis written by David Black, a Cumbrian vet who was directly involved in the crisis. This essay makes it clear that the Government failed to react promptly and effectively but falls short of expanding on those short comings. (v)
In Stuart Franklin’s review of Eugene Richard’s Cocaine True Cocaine Blue he argues that: “The impact of the book was diminished however by the relegation of a brilliant explanatory text by medical doctor Stephen Nicholas to the back pages.” (9: p 71) And, I feel that Dark Days falls into the same trap, I would have preferred to have seen Breeze’s foreword immediately followed by Black’s personal account with Wells’ more academic text after the photographs.
The photographs open with the beautiful landscape of the Lake District, an idyllic pastoral scene, but in the words of Cream’s song SWLABR
“You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses, But the picture has a moustache.” (10)
The “moustache” is the emptiness, neither humans nor sheep can be seen on the hills of Kirkstone Pass or in the stone walled pastures above Patterdale; it is agricultural land without agriculture; a national park without tourists; footpaths without walkers. Disinfectant mats and tubs, warning signs, black-bagged footpath signs, police incident tape and a solitary political poster (see opening image) begin to unfold the narrative, the explanation of desertion.
Darwell is a Cumbrian resident and understood that the impact of the epidemic was felt far beyond the farmers; the general absence of tourists, closed caravan sites, pubs, cafes and petrol stations denote the scale of the economic suffering and speak to the totality of the rural community effected.
If the emptiness is the “moustache” the next set of photographers represent Cream’s final chorus
“You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses. You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard.” (10)
Darwell’s picture postcard landscapes are injected with plumes of smoke, the pyres of some of the six million animals destroyed in the cull.
The narrative builds as a chronological series which brings the viewer in slowly from the great landscapes of the Lake District to the details describing the impact on the economy, the plumes of smoke, the pyres and finally to the slaughtered animals. In this sense the narrative references film documentary, Darwell has been given a generous publishing space within which to work, there are nearly 150 photographs in this series, allowing Darwell to introduce changes of pace in different parts of the narrative, a slow buildup of landscapes followed by quick fire shots of dead sheep brings a sense of drama to his presentation. It is at this point that Darwell brings the first farmer into the story, a tired and distraught man in a stereotypical flat cap that contrasts with his crime-scene disposable overalls. As the human impact is introduced the caption adds a further layer of poignancy “They’re my brother-in-law’s sheep. Mine all one went last week. He won’t come out of the house until it’s all over.”
The series develops in this manner to record the whole story from cull through clean-up to the footpaths being reopened, field gates left open, a handful of tourists reappearing and concluding with the “For Sale” signs on rural cottages and farms.
As a Cumbrian resident and a documentary photographer already exploring environment issues and their impact on communities, Darwell was not only sensitive to the drama unfolding around his home but had a professional understanding of the imperative to document the event. In his excellent book The Documentary Impulse (9) Stuart Franklin writes at length about the history and motivations of documentary photographers; in the opening chapter he summaries his thoughts as:
“The driving factors behind this impulse throughout history have included curiosity, outrage, reform, ritual, self-assertion and the expression of power. These factors encompass the search for evidence, for beauty, even for therapy – and always the search to make memories immortal.” (9: p.8)
We can instinctively see many of these motivations in Dark Days; especially the search for evidence, the sense of outrage and a desire for reform, perhaps the process of photographing the event was therapeutic for Darwell, a sense of doing something positive when feeling helpless in the face of a crisis. This could not have been an easy project; to achieve the images of farmers, pyres and slaughtered animals meant working close to both the human victims and the vets trying to complete an assignment that went against all their instincts and training to preserve life. Farmers have an unique and complex bond with their livestock, to photograph their grief might fall short of photographing a funeral but, as a photographer it would be impossible not to feel a sense of intrusion into a very private situation. It is testament to the man that the vet, David Black, describes how they became friends in the course of that year (6: p.188).
As a book this is an important record of a significant historical event, as a photographic series it is an emotionally charged narrative that slowly but eloquently unfolds across nearly two hundred pages, as a political statement it is a sad indictment of successive Governments who exhibit a minimal understanding of rural issues and whose policies in that area are typically pitched for their urban constituents rather the people directly impacted.
Captions play a vital role in this series, having criticised the layout of the book above it is important to say that Darwell’s captions add immense value to the pictures; the photographs and their accompanying captions plus the sheer scale of the series creates an unusually complete record of an event but as Paul Trevor said of Survival Programmes “To document a condition is not to explain it” (4: p17). This book represents a unique first hand account of a devastating environmental and human disaster providing a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the food chain, of agriculture and of rural economies as well as being an important historical record of an event with significant social consequences.
As a life-long countryman with close connections to farming my viewpoint is biased, I came to this book with a broad understanding of the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic but I remain frustrated that, apart from David Black’s excellent but too short essay, I left the book without a full understanding of why the crisis was allowed to happen. To protect our farmers and their herds is arguably a greater imperative now than ever before, the dairy industry, if not on its knees, is in a state of crisis and at a time, in the aftermath of Brexit, when the whole future of British farming is unclear we can ill afford a repeat of the 2001 or 1967 foot and mouth epidemic.
Notes on Text
(i) The violin was not invented until the 11th century but why spoil a good story with too many facts. The historian Tacitus, who was alive at the time, places Nero 60 km away in Antium at the time of the fire and dismisses the story of him singing about the fall of Troy when he heard the news as a rumour.
(ii) The Exit Photography Group comprised Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor. According to Amber Online (1 &4) “Between 1974 and 1979, against a backdrop of rising concern about the converging issues of race, poverty, Exit Photography Group captured the growing crisis in the inner cities. In London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Glasgow and Belfast Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor documented the scale and complexity of the situation, and the different responses to it.”
(iii) Daniel Betrá’s aerial photographs are a shocking study of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. (2 & 5); the perfect repost to the argument that photographers should not make tragedy beautiful, it is the very beauty of these photographs that makes their message so powerful. It not only asks us to question how man can be so casual when harvesting oil in the natural environment it challenges us with the paradox of aesthetic beauty arising from an environmental and human disaster. His series on the Amazon rainforest is equally powerful and quite brilliantly conceived, amongst fifty five aerial photographs of the impact of deforestation he includes just two ground level shots, one of the perpetrators and one of a human victim.
(iv) Roger Breeze is a Lancashire Farmer and academic working with government agencies to address the threat of biological weapons and the spread of disease.
(v) I refer any interested reader to the BBC’s chronological record of the outbreak. (11) To my uneducated eye there were a number of significant errors made by not just the Government of the day but their predecessors.
- On 19th February signs of Foot and Mouth (FMD) were identified at an abattoir in Essex. According to BBC “It is now believed that the virus had already spread to 57 farms nationwide in the days before the discovery”, the Government’s contingency plan was based on the assumption that only 10 farms would have been infected before the disease was identified. This suggests the plans drawn up after the 1967 outbreak had not been revisited and updated in 34 years.
- On 20th February the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) confirms that the tests have proved positive.
- On 23rd February the government introduces a ban on the movement of animals from affected areas.
Between the 20th and the 23rd a livestock market was held in Longtown Combria. Because an export ban was already in place there were more animals on sale than normal. Cumbria suffered worse than any other area of Britain, 41% of all cases identified, the layman might conclude that the failure to ban all animal movements on 20th February was a significant contributory factor.
(3) McCullin, Don (2007) In England. London: Jonathan Cape
(4) Battye, Nicholas. Steele-Perkins, Chris and Trevor, Paul (1982) Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities. Milton Keynes: Open University Press
(5) Betrá, Daniel (2010) Spill, London:Gost
(6) Darwell, John (2007) Dark Days. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing
(9) Franklin, Stuart (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon
(1) Rigby, Graeme (2009) Survival Programmes by Exit Photography Group (accessed at Amber On-Line 19.8.16) – http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/survival-programmes-by-exit-photography-group
(2) Betrá, Daniel (2010) Spill (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://danielbeltra.photoshelter.com/portfolio/G0000N9uDgKewQWk
(7) Darwell, John (ND) About John Darwell (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://johndarwell.com/index.php?r=page/default/view&id=1
(8) Darwell, John (ND) A Black Dog Came Calling (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://johndarwell.com/index.php?r=image/default/category&alias=a-black-dog-came-calling
(10) Bruce, Jack and Brown, Pete (1971) Cream – SWLABR (accessed at Song Meanings 20.8.16) – http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3458764513820556084/
(11) BBC (2011) Foot and Mouth Outbreak of 2001 (accessed at BBC 20.8.16) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-12483017