‘I’m certainly not doing this for some high-flown reason. I don’t consider myself to be a reformer, and I don’t think this is going in any way whatever to affect the rate of crime.’
The auditorium is dark and quiet. David Goldblatt seems very small against the huge black and white photograph projected behind him. It shows two women in front of a house in Soweto where they were subjected to an attack that resulted in one of them being sent to prison. We’ve seen 15 or 20 such portraits of people at similar crime scenes in the last hour, some made in South Africa, where David Goldblatt was born in 1930, and some in Britain, made as part of a Multistory commission. The images are extraordinary, but so are the photographer’s stories about the people he has met and photographed. He speaks quietly and carefully, re-telling what each ex-offender has told him, avoiding judgements either of truthfulness or morality. It has been one of the most extraordinary hours I have ever with an artist.
David Goldblatt’s talk at Plymouth University was part of day-long presentation of recent work by Multistory, a small community arts organisation I’ve worked with in different ways since 2009. Six artists spoke about their work. As well as David, there were presentations by Martin Parr, Margaret Drabble, Hans Eijkelboom, Mark Power and Susie Parr. All had been commissioned by Multistory to come to the Black Country and create work with local people about their lives. The resulting work, which is continuing and already includes more than a dozen other artists, is building into an artistic and social documentary project of national importance. It is also rethinking the practice of community arts in the 21st century. And so, naturally, it is as full of questions, ambiguities and uncertainties as it is of outstanding art. The need to step back, reflect and take stock of what has been done is growing and we’ve begun discussing how to do that: the invitation from Plymouth University was one step in that process.
Paradoxically, it is those very uncertainties that make me so sure that this work matters. At the end of his talk, David was asked about his reasons for doing his work. His reply was deeply serious, honest and challenging. Like his work, it deserves to be reflected on not only by those of us who work in community art, or even by artists, but by everyone, united as we are in our common responsibility for the world.
‘I’m certainly not doing this for some high-flown reason. I don’t consider myself to be a reformer, and I don’t think this is going in any way whatever to affect the rate of crime. But again I come back to the original impulse. I had a friend, Barney Simon, who became a famous theatre director in South Africa, who would say ‘The things that we’ve got to tackle are the things that we fear most’.
And, yeah, I am frankly shit scared of these criminals, many of them. We live in a house now with an electrified fence, electric gates, we’ve got an electrified alarm. We live in a society that is in prison. We’re in prison. And when I go into an area now where I feel that I’m going to be at risk, I hire a bodyguard, sometimes a man with a gun. I used to work on the assumption that if I showed people that I trust them, they will trust me. I can no longer do that, in all honesty, and I think that’s very sad.’