Mark Neville: waging an ethical war with his camera

From boy soldiers to stock traders, Neville’s photos set out to spark change, and he has even seen his books burned in Scotland

Two boys, dressed up as soldiers, smile for the camera against the backdrop of a firing range in a dusty desert. The one on the left has a freckled, open face, though his friend beside him has something in his eyes that suggests their game has its dark side – except they're not playing. Although they don't look it, you have to be over 18 to serve as a soldier with the British Army in Helmand Province.

For London-born artist Mark Neville, who was in Afghanistan in 2011, the issue was to take photographs that avoided the cliches of war reporting. He had become, like many, numb to the images coming out of war zones, the cumulative coverage almost like wallpaper. So how do you take pictures that really say something and, once you've taken them, how do you make them matter?

This ethical conundrum is at the heart of Neville's projects, and it's one he believes artists should be taking a stronger position on, given the challenges the world faces. How do you make art that speaks beyond the gallery, and how do you enable people to see things differently, or in such a way that they might themselves become agents for change? It's a position that has taken him from Glasgow to Corby, and the Isle of Bute to the Pennsylvania towns of Braddock and Sewickley. His series of images Here Is London was commissioned by the New York Times. Now his projects to date are collected in his first major monograph, Fancy Pictures.

Engaging

Born in London in 1966, Neville is tall and engaging, with dark hair turning to salt and pepper, and brown-green eyes. He thinks deeply about things, while adding an intelligent humour that makes him extremely attractive. I get a sense of this over the phone, as I’m catching up with him at an airport, while he’s on his way to

Ukraine

via Germany. The hectic pace has been building, since he had that moment of thinking about what he wanted his art to do.

“I wanted to look at how we’re fed images,” he says. “I was really fed up with ‘artspeak’, and I wanted to find a way to deal with the real somehow.”

Neville studied at Goldsmiths in London, and then at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam.

“It was fashionable to reference conceptual art, it was very dry, everything you made had to be backed up by at least 10 eminent theorists,” he says, with his tongue firmly in cheek, but also more than a grain of added truth. It took him, he adds, about five years to work out how to make work that matters, and the camera was his chosen tool.

“I had two very early experiences with photography,” he remembers. One was via his grandfather, who had been a naval captain during the second World War. “He was a very aggressive man, and I now realise he had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], but he took a lot of photographs. It was how he mediated between himself and the world, and he couldn’t do it through conventional means.” Neville was to use that insight later, for his Helmand project and its aftermath, more of which later.

Model

The other experience was as a model in the late 1980s. “I’m not proud or ashamed of it,” he says, as if still pondering what that particular circus might have meant to him. He had been at college, completely broke, and a friend had put him in touch with an agency. “I modelled for Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons,

Paul Smith

. I was 22 at the time, and it gave me a very worldly experience of how photography changes your skin, literally, into a commodity.”

He pauses. “I won’t say it’s prostitution, but it made me think profoundly of what the aim of pictures are: is it to sell something, to advance your career, or can it be pushed further and used for ethical issues? That became much more interesting to me than any art world agendas.”

Neville's first major public art project was at Port Glasgow, on the west coast of Scotland, a former shipbuilding town clinging, as he describes it, to its post-industrial identity. Keenly alert to the unpleasant ironies of making a gallery exhibition and glossy coffee table book on the back of images of a community at the pin of their collective financial collars, Neville's proposal was to make a book that would never be commercially available, but instead be distributed free to each of the 8,000 households in the town.

He went a stage further, and used the distribution budget to pay kids from the local football team to deliver the book. Fancy Pictures includes a letter from a local resident describing the experience of being on the cusp of chasing a boy out of his garden "when he said 'it's a free book, big man, aboot tha port' . . . touching stuff, as many of the photos I can relate to obviously."

Mixed reception

The letter writer says that he is “not sure what you’re trying to gain from this or what the reason behind it is but I wish you luck.”

The book had a mixed reception. Alongside the positive responses, the residents of Robert Street decided it was too Catholic and a book-burning was organised. Counting them up, nine photos were taken in Protestant pubs and clubs, and seven in Catholic ones. "Now I see it as an interesting thermometer of religious feeling and social tension," says Neville in an interview with David Campany in Fancy Pictures. "At the time I was just upset."

Neville's purpose would become clearer over his next projects, which included a period in Corby in Northamptonshire in 2010. While there, he came across the Corby 16 case, a class action suit alleging congenital birth defects due to poor disposal procedures for toxic waste. Neville entitled his resultant book Deeds Not Words, and this time sent copies to every local authority in the UK. Nothing happened. Then a symposium on the project at The Photographers' Gallery in London was picked up by Channel 4 News, out of which came a manifesto that went to Parliament. Neville describes this process as "slipperiness . . . You never know what the outcome is going to be, you can't control it, and that is a fantastic feeling."

The Helmand Work took place after a tour with the 16 Air Assault Brigade in 2011. Neville found it profound, shocking, troubling and difficult – both practically and emotionally; realising how completely inappropriate his own presence was – and, by extension, how inappropriate the British occupation had been. It was only when he returned home and was writing about the experience for the Independent that he discovered that, like his grandfather, he too was suffering from PTSD. He gave his email at the end of the article, asking anyone with similar experiences to get in touch. "I got an email every 10 minutes for six or seven weeks."

Seized at customs

Circumventing a Ministry of Defence stipulation that the testimonies he received from soldiers with PTSD, and their families, could not be within the same book as his Helmand images, Neville created a two-volume publication

The Battle Against Stigma

, the first 500 copies of which were seized at customs on their way back from the printers. The 1,000 that did get through went to prison libraries, probation services, homeless shelters, veteran mental health charities and the Defence Mental Health Services at the MoD.

Detailing all this, Fancy Pictures is a wonderful, thought-provoking book. The title comes from a term, popularised in the 1700s by artist Joshua Reynolds, to describe paintings with peasants in them. Neville turns this concept on its head, putting humanity at the centre of his brilliantly composed and memorable images – whether they are of the farming community on the remote Isle of Bute, feeding goats and lambs in their kitchens; youths with guns or a young boy in a Santa hat in Afghanistan; or the desperate exhaustion on the faces of traders on the London Metal Exchange, the last undigitised stock exchange in England.

Unlike the images of his slightly older contemporary Martin Parr, there's nothing opportunistic, cynical, knowing or glib about Neville's work, and that's because he genuinely cares.

Lip service

“Look,” he says, urgently, “look at the f**ing times we live in. It’s awful. People who have wealth and power also have responsibility to try and do something about it. And then people, like me, who don’t have any money, are doing this. It’s not enough to pay lip service, you have to push.”

I ask him about the role of the artist, about that urge to be political, or the desire some may have to stay outside what is going on.

“I’ve got to be a thinking, perceptive, political person, or else it’s meaningless. If enough people chip away at the issues, then things do change. If enough people do that, maybe we can do something.”

He points out that inequality is bad for everyone. “It’s obviously bad for poor people, but it’s bad for rich people too because it creates fear. More equal societies are happier.”

These days that might seem like a distant goal, but we’re selling ourselves, and everyone else short if we don’t, at least, try.

Mark Neville's exhibition Child's Play is at the Foundling Museum, London from February 3rd to April 30th 2017, foundlingmuseum.org.uk. Fancy Pictures is published by Steidl, €48, steidl.de

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