The social-documentary photographer, Paul Reas, was born 1955 into a working-class family on the Buttershaw estate. He later spoke about how his Bradford life experiences had a profound impact on his work, and how he wanted to photograph people from his own background and experiences. For over 30+ years Paul has documented the loss of manufacturing and staple industries and the advance of a new corporate and commercial world, epitomised by sanitised ‘heritage’ industry sites, retail parks, and supermarkets.
Paul was one of five children. His mother worked in a local factory, and his travelling salesman father was rarely at home. He went to Buttershaw Comprehensive and in the early 1970s, aged 15, was apprenticed as a bricklayer to a local builder. A friend introduced him to photography and throughout the 1970s Paul recorded people on the streets of Bradford, using the space below the stairs in home to develop his photographs. He borrowed books from the city library on photography and became inspired by American documentary photography.
He decided this was the career route he wanted to pursue and, aged 28, applied for a place on the Documentary Photography course at the University of Wales, Newport, where he studied full-time between 1982-84. This proved to be an education in a range of ways. He told the local newspaper (‘Telegraph & Argus’ 28 Nov 2013):
I met people outside my own social background. I suppose I went with lots of prejudices about people who came from a different background. College was quite a revelation for me.
He was taught by prestigious photographers, including David Hurn and Martin Parr, but found that many of the students were seeking ‘poverty and pity’ images that stigmatised the working classes. Paul consciously set out to depict the working lives of working people as he remembered it: a mixture of employed and unemployed people in a range of situations. This led to a series of college projects: ‘Working Men’ (1982); ‘Penrhys Free Studio’ (1983); and ‘Desmond’s Mine’ (1983).
In 1985, Paul was selected by Ffotogallery, Cardiff, to be one of a number of commissioned photographers to record social change in South Wales. The Valleys Project gave Paul the opportunity to record the changing South Wales landscape and, in particular, the decline of coal mining, and its replacement with ‘new technology’ industries, with its bias now toward female unskilled employment. The latter part of the project was particularly relevant for Paul. He wrote:
It was a biographical response because my Mum worked in the same industry in Yorkshire and I was aware of the kinds of pressures that were on women working in that industry … I remember her having to make components at home in the evening in order to hit her weekly targets … The photographs are about alienation. It’s about the idea of objectification and the emphasis on the number ( from ‘Day Dreaming About the Good Times’ exhibition, Impressions Gallery, Bradford, 2014).
Between 1985-1988 Paul launched a project titled to record in colour the transformation of Britain from a manufacturing to a service sector driven economy. In particular, he documented a consumer boom in this period, with its out of town shopping malls and rise of new housing estates. This led to Paul’s first book, ‘I Can Help’ published in 1988 by Cornerhouse. When interviewed, he said of this:
I chose to shoot in colour because I was aware of the psychology of selling. I’d noticed these big stores would use very bold colours to heighten peoples’ enthusiasm for buying things. At the tills, there were a lot of reds and oranges; but at pick-up points, cool pastel colours were used, so shoppers would be calm and relaxed as they waited for their orders. I felt black and white would miss much of this vital information. But I also wanted to challenge the established orthodoxy of documentary photography, which saw black and white as the only way. (Guardian 12 March 2014)
Another self-initiated project between 1989-1993 was to document the way that former working industrial sites, e.g. mines and mills, were being transformed into ‘leisure experiences’, in the forms of museums and theme parks. This led to his second book, ‘Flogging a Dead Horse’ (1993), published by Cornerhouse. Paul wrote that his photographs represented:
heritage as a branch of the leisure industry … a bitter and ironic rebuke to those who are appropriating working class history … with all its hardships … and making it into entertainment.
Throughout the 1990s, in addition to his own projects, Paul was employed as an editorial photographer for a wide range of newspapers, including The Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and the Observer, and was employed by an advertising agency to photograph for a range of prestigious clients, including Volkswagen, Honda, Nissan, and British Telecom. Paul was instrumental in helping to move the marketing emphasis away from gloss to a more reportage and naturalistic approach.
In 2012, Paul was commissioned by the London College of Communication to respond to the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle neighbourhood in South London. This came at a good time for Paul, as he had become embedded in commercial photography projects and wanted to return to socially committed documentary work. The Elephant and Castle at that time was experiencing changes similar to those that had affected his own family in Bradford a few years earlier. He wrote:
The house on Brafferton Arbor, on the Buttershaw Estate where I was born and where my mother had raised her five children, was demolished to make way for a private housing estate. The uncertainty and anxiety felt at this time influenced the way I photographed the people of the Elephant and Castle as they contemplated their uncertain future … This project articulates how people feel about their futures, as I felt myself about roots, history and a sense of belonging. (‘From a Distance’, 2012)
This led to an exhibition of his work at The London College of Communication in October 2012. Paul’s account of the project was published in ‘From a Distance’ in Fieldstudy 16 published by The Photography and the Archive Research Centre.
Paul Reas’ work has been widely exhibited in solo exhibitions in Britain and overseas, notably at the Photographers’ Gallery, London; Olympus Gallery, Amsterdam; Stills Gallery, Edinburgh; Fotobienal, Vigo; London College of Communication; Impressions Gallery, Bradford; and Ffotogallery in Penarth, Wales.
His work has also featured in a range of other exhibitions, including Positive Lives (1993) at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford; Who’s Looking at the Family at Barbican (1994); and How We Are: Photographing Britain at Tate Britain, London, 2007.
Paul has also had a teaching career parallel to his project work. He taught at the Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton, 1993-1998, and in 2018 was the Senior Lecturer (Photo), Faculty of Creative Industries, Documentary Photography Course, at the University of South Wales, Newport. Paul is also an External Examiner in Photography at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, Holland.
Paul has also gained him numerous awards, including: D&AD Award (gold); Campaign Poster Award (silver); Cannes Lion Award (Gold and Bronze); and Creative Circle Award (Bronze). His work is held in the British Council Collection and he is represented by the James Hyman Gallery in London.
Paul has said of his work as a whole: ‘Being a photographer is a privilege and the camera is a passport into other people’s lives’ (Impressions Gallery exhibition, 2013.)
A retrospective book by Paul about his work over 30 years: Fables of Faubus was published in 2018 by GOST. The book’s title, ‘Fables of Faubus’ is drawn from a song of the same name by jazz composer Charles Mingus, concerning Orval Faubus, who was the Governor of Arkansas during the time of the US Civil Rights movement. Faubus is seen as a dark force holding back social change – a similar such force is seen echoed through much of Paul Reas’ work. Earlier publications listed below:
Books by Paul Reas:
- I Can Help (1988) Manchester: Cornerhouse.
- Flogging a Dead Horse: Heritage Culture and Its Role in Post-industrial Britain. (1993) Manchester: Cornerhouse.
Featuring Paul’s work:
- Colclough, C. (1991) Pivot: Sixteen Artists Using Photography in Wales and Philadelphia Llandudno, Wales: Oriel Mostyn,
- Mayes, S. & Stein, L. (eds) Positive Lives: Responses to HIV. London: Network Photographers. ( Part of the Cassell AIDS Awareness Series).
- British Photography (1988) Towards A Bigger Picture.Aperture.
- Williams, V. (ed) Who’s Looking at the Family? London: Barbican Art Gallery.
- Rogers, B. (ed) Documentary Dilemmas: Aspects of British Documentary Photography, 1983–1993. London: British Council.
- The House in the Middle; Photographs of Interior Design in the Nuclear Age (2004) Brighton: Photoworks.
- How We Are. Photographing Britain. (2007) Tate Publication
- From Talbot to Fox. 150 Years of British Social Photography. (2012) London: James Hyman, 2012. Limited edition of 50. An overview of British social photography published to accompany an exhibition by James Hyman Photography at The AIPAD Photography Show New York in 2011.
- The Photographer’s Playbook, 307 Assignments and ideas. (2014) Aperture.