‘We’ve become unhappier’: 12 leading photographers on the images that sum up the Tories’ time in power

<span>Leave campaigner, Westminster Bridge, London, 15 June 2016.</span><span>Photograph: Dafydd Jones</span>
Leave campaigner, Westminster Bridge, London, 15 June 2016.Photograph: Dafydd Jones

Dafydd Jones

Leave campaigner, Westminster Bridge, London, 15 June 2016

Dafydd Jones made his name as a society and party photographer in the 1980s, mainly for Vanity Fair and Tatler. This image was taken one week before the EU referendum, for his How We Live Now feature in the Oldie.

I’d heard about a flotilla of fishermen demonstrating outside parliament in support of Brexit. I went along and it was quite an eccentric, English-seeming scene with fishing boats with flags. Bob Geldof was there. And there was a luxury party boat with Nigel Farage and other Brexit supporters on it. I was just on the riverbank.

I had all the lenses to photograph boats, jostling in the river, but the best picture was this one of the lady with the sign. I don’t go out with an agenda, but sometimes there’s a bang: “Oh, that’s it!” Everything’s in the right place: it looks like London, you’ve got the wheel and the light and the lady, and the quizzical look from the man standing there. I didn’t speak to her, but I think she looks ambiguous. The dress is a bit long and she just looks like she’s come slightly from another age.

Travelling around, taking pictures, I did start to get a feeling about the way the vote might go. That day outside parliament, Bob Geldof was heckling with an incredibly loud amplifier and it was hectoring and he wasn’t very funny. Whereas the leave campaigners were quite jokey. I’d been at some events where Boris Johnson would give an off-the-cuff speech and I could see how popular he was. I could see almost that he was going to be on the winning side.

Personally, I was annoyed with the government for being given a choice. I think a lot of people are probably now quite angry with the Tories for putting everyone in this situation, because of Tory infighting, where we had to vote one way or the other. I took a lot of photographs at Oxford parties in the 1980s, and I suppose there was a recklessness at Oxford that maybe carried on into politics.

Taking photographs over the years, I think we’ve become unhappier. The other thing it has been hard for me not to notice is the oligarchs. The non-dom thing began happening before the Conservatives’ 14 years, but now they dominate the London social scene. England’s always been divided, but it’s got worse. Tim Lewis

Martin Parr

Food bank, Wolverhampton, 2012

Internationally renowned for his lurid, brightly coloured, funny and occasionally slyly political photography, the Bristol-based Martin Parr chronicles modern life across Britain and beyond. His recent projects include Malaga Express, a 2023 exhibition and book capturing what the south of Spain looks like today, and Glastonbury festival photography for the Guardian last summer.

This was taken at a Black Country food bank – a can of spam given with love from Jesus Christ. It’s ironic and funny. Its message is self-explanatory.

There’s been a proliferation of food banks over the past 14 years, and it struck me that they’d be a good thing to photograph. This picture came from a church-based organisation, but so many different organisations are doing this work. The people in the Black Country are very friendly, happy for me to be there, although of course the people going to get the food were more nervous.

I’ve photographed in factories, shops, and around outdoor entertainment all across the four boroughs – Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, the city of Wolverhampton. It’s a very interesting part of the country, quite isolated, despite being so close to Birmingham. People seem to like living there and young people seem to want to stay there. Traditional industry there has obviously declined so much, but the many immigrants who have moved to the area have given it a new energy.

What do I think of the past 14 years of government? Pretty negative thoughts, really. I mean, look at the can of spam having to come from Jesus – it’s bonkers. What more can I say? The messages that come from it, for that having to happen, are open-ended.

Documentary photographs belong to the left. Ask any documentary photographer and they’ll probably say the same. They have an empathy with people. I’ve never met a rightwing documentary photographer. I don’t think they exist.
Jude Rogers

Eddie Otchere

Grenfell Tower, 17 June 2017

Eddie Otchere is a London-born photographer who has dedicated most of his 30-year career to chronicling Black British culture. He documented the rise of drum’n’bass and hip-hop and is known for his candid portraits of artists including Jay-Z, So Solid Crew and the Wu-Tang Clan. His photographic memoir, Spirit Behind the Lens: The Making of a Hip-Hop Photographer, will be published by Repeater in September.

It’s a symbol of absolute failure, this monstrous tombstone that sits in our city

This photograph was taken the weekend after the fire at Grenfell Tower, which happened just over seven years ago, on 14 June 2017. It was Saturday morning and it seemed like the whole of London had swarmed on that part of the world. People were walking around in shock, no one knowing what to do but wanting to help and to talk to one another about what had happened, as if it was some kind of group therapy. The only other time I’ve seen that happen was when Diana, Princess of Wales, died and the entire nation turned up at High Street Kensington.

Grenfell has been on my mind a lot lately. I can’t think of a bigger symbol of what’s gone wrong over the past 14 years than the burnt-out shell of the tower. It’s a symbol of absolute failure, this monstrous tombstone that sits in our city, a constant reminder of 72 lives lost and no justice. There’s no sense of accountability any more in public life, no sense of responsibility. All these years later you can still go past the tower every day and see it clad in plastic, a building that no one lives in or uses, and no one wants to accept the blame for what happened there. We, the public, pay the bill. We bury the dead.

On the day I took this photograph, I brought black and white film with me because it was just too beautiful a summer’s day. I felt I couldn’t photograph the building and make it look beautiful. It had to be just that, a tombstone. Lisa O’Kelly

Nick Waplington

From the series Hackney Riviera, 2018

Based between London and New York, Nick Waplington is an award-winning British artist and photographer whose work has been exhibited at Tate Modern and the Venice Biennale. His publications include Living Room, Working Process, and 2019’s Hackney Riviera, which captured apparently idyllic scenes on the banks of the River Lea in east London.

This was June 2018, and it was a very hot summer. It was during the World Cup, and England got to the semi-finals, so everything was frenetic. I live in Hackney Wick, and the place where the picture was taken is a five-minute cycle ride from my house. My older son discovered it – because it had been so dry, the River Lea had got low and had slowed right down. Word spread locally and suddenly there were crowds of people there every day. It was a time when Brexit was still in the balance, and I wanted to celebrate the diversity, togetherness and resilience of the community in which I live.

I didn’t really see at the time that the pictures had anything to do with pollution, but I later found out that the water was pretty contaminated: it’s just downstream from a number of warehouses and businesses in Tottenham, and there’s rat urine in the water. The next year the council tried to stop people swimming there. I ended up getting a septic foot from a cut, but I still went back in for a while longer that summer. I certainly wouldn’t go back in now.

I think a lot of people who have got sick from swimming in seas and rivers weren’t aware until it happened to them. It’s outrageous, the amount of money that has been taken out of the system – tens of billions of pounds in dividends for the owners of the water companies. They’ve been telling people that after Brexit we should take holidays in Britain, and now they’ve covered all the beaches in shit and no one can swim in the water.

I don’t know why people aren’t marching in the streets about this. I follow Feargal Sharkey and his campaign [to protect England’s rivers and streams] on X, and he’s an amazing character. I’m hoping that Keir Starmer and the Labour party will bring back the idea of public service. Hopefully the waterways will be renationalised, and any profits will be used to put right the mess. Kathryn Bromwich

Katherine Anne Rose

Aven and Reed, home life during lockdown with three children and no childcare

Katherine Anne Rose is an editorial photographer based in Glasgow. Her portraiture and work documenting the city’s changing community regularly appear in the Observer and the Guardian.

My twins were born just before the Covid lockdowns began and so they had to spend much of their early lives indoors. This picture captures one of their favourite places in our house during that time, which is a large window looking out on to the street. They were about 18 months old and became obsessed with climbing up there and watching the world as it went by, waving to people and getting excited when our neighbour took out his motorbike.

I don’t usually photograph my family as the subjects for my work but I’m glad I documented this moment because it encapsulates what became such a beautiful time to spend with them at that age, even while the world outside was so threatening. It felt like us in our safe haven, when otherwise the experience of raising children under a Tory government can feel unsupported and scary.

I was 11 when Labour won their 1997 landslide and that felt like a real moment of hope and idealism. Now, though, there is such a sense of hopelessness and cynicism I feel from our politicians. I have photographed many politicians over the course of my career and when they have been alone I have experienced them as relatively normal people, but there is something about when they are in a group – suddenly it feels as if they have less humanity and less consideration for the rest of us.

For those of us looking after children, it seems like we’re just expected to stoically cope on our own without many structures in place to help. I feel afraid for my children’s future when all they have known is this government and a political landscape that feels lacking in humanity. On top of that, they are also faced with the very real dangers of global heating. It’s not an easy thing to talk about but all we can do is try to look after one another and keep striving for a better future. Ammar Kalia

Liz Johnson Artur

Windrush Square, Brixton, 2022

Born in Bulgaria to a Ghanaian father and Russian mother, Liz Johnson Artur moved to London in her early 20s and for decades has documented Black life from across the African diaspora in her ongoing project Black Balloon Archive (1991). She was shortlisted for the Aimia Ago prize in 2017 and in 2019 had her first UK solo show at the South London Gallery.

Every year since the Windrush scandal was exposed, I’ve attended a demonstration at Windrush Square in Brixton. Everyone has been affected badly by the Tory government over the past 14 years but the Black community that I document in my work has been particularly targeted and Windrush is a perfect example. It’s a huge story that is still causing people to be detained or deported and yet it somehow only ends up on the third page of the paper.

This image was taken at the Windrush demonstration in 2021. It’s not a typical image for me, since I usually like to see people’s faces, but I noticed this quiet man in the crowd who was wearing a shirt with Enough Is Enough written on it and that phrase summed up the feeling of spending the day hearing the stories of people directly affected by Windrush and this Tory government. Since I only shoot on film, I choose my images very carefully, and this frame carries a certain symbolism – he was so much taller than me, it gives him a commanding presence, despite being otherwise unassuming.

I have a German passport and came to the UK in 1991. My work is about connecting with people on a one-to-one level and through it I’ve really noticed how the Tories have managed to break this country down. From Windrush to Brexit, their politics have subjugated people and made those of us with different nationalities feel unwelcome. On a personal level, it has sometimes made me question whether I can even be here. Enough really is enough. AK

Laura Pannack

Celia and Chris, from the series Separation, 2018

Laura Pannack is a photographic artist best known for her portraiture and social documentary work. Born in Kingston, Surrey, her work has been shown at the National Portrait Gallery and Somerset House and she has won a number of prizes including the John Kobal and the Julia Margaret Cameron awards. She is London-based, but says: “I always have my toothbrush packed and ready to travel at any time.”

Soon after the 2016 referendum, the British Journal of Photography asked me to work on a project with the theme of Brexit. They gave me carte blanche: I could do anything I wanted as long as it encapsulated the idea of Brexit.

My work is always built around emotion, and so I began to think about love and about how connections could be lost through Brexit. With the BJP team I researched couples whose lives and families had been affected by Brexit. We did callouts on Twitter and found that a lot of couples were either having to separate or facing the prospect of doing so in the future. I then said, well, I have a visual idea for that: I’ve been playing around with separating people using fabric and paper, why don’t we do that?

We ended up using latex, which was a nightmare to handle but visually very effective. We had all of the couples come into the studio and asked them to kind of get into poses that they felt were very personal to them and their relationship, and then we slid latex between them so that it divided them. I photographed it on analogue and it was a really fun shoot but also very emotional. The woman in this shot is Celia, who had come here from Spain to study fashion and met her English partner Chris in London. After the vote she now faced an uncertain future with no real job prospects and possibly having to return to Spain.

The work was published in BJP, but it took on a new meaning a couple of years later when Covid hit. As the pandemic separated people in a similar, painful way, it became the first thing that everyone thought of when they looked at the work. LO’K

Antonio Olmos

Murder #38, Negus McClean, Edmonton, 10 April 2011

Born in Mexico, Antonio Olmos is a photojournalist and portrait photographer who is based in London and has worked for the Guardian and Observer for nearly 30 years. His work has covered refugee crises, the environment, human rights issues and conflict, and in 2013, his book The Landscape of Murder documented every murder site in London in 2011 and 2012.

In 2011, I began this personal project. I wasn’t interested in dead bodies but in the places where murders happen. This was in Edmonton, where a 15-year-old had died the day before. My idea was to photograph everything for this project in landscape, asking permission from the people in the scenes.

If this was about the death of a white kid from a Tory town, there would have been outrage

I saw these kids, convinced myself to go and ask them, and they all said yes. They were really nice, gentle, didn’t give me any hassle. I went across the street, set up my tripod very quickly. I was there 10 minutes, if that.

You can’t process things when you’re in the moment, but when I got home and looked at the picture, I stared at it for a long time. If I’d been a younger photographer, I may not have recognised what was in it, but I’m getting older now – I’ve worked in conflict zones; I realise what makes a powerful image. There were so many layers of meaning: the site of the murder being such an ordinary place, the many people of colour, the kids staring at their phones. That was new then. The phone seemed to be everything to them, offering them a place of protection and distraction.

This picture was meant to be part of a project, published later, but I took it to the Guardian picture desk, and it was printed a few days later on a double-page spread in the Eyewitness section. It was talked about, and I was interviewed on the radio. The picture got more coverage than the murder itself, which had 100 words in the local newspaper. If this was about the death of a white kid from a leafy Tory town, there would have been outrage.

Tabloid media and society have taught us to be afraid of young people and it’s got so much worse in the past 14 years. Knife crime has risen under Tory rule and austerity has cut everything for teenagers – education, youth centres, so much support.

And these very people who are meant to be a threat are usually out there protesting for better things. Nine years after I took this picture, I photographed the Black Lives Matter protests, which were inhabited by kids of all colours. Seeing them all lined up against walls, I realised I was trying to make this picture again there too, a picture that influenced me a lot, a picture that happened so fast. JR

Niall McDiarmid

Arthur and Avis, Milton Keynes, May 2024

A Scottish photographer based in south London, Niall McDiarmid began his career as a junior reporter before switching to photojournalism. His work ever since has documented the diverse people and landscapes of Britain. His books include Breakfast, Shore, Southwestern, Town to Town and Via Vauxhall.

Around 2010 to 2011, I started travelling across the UK, trying to build up a kind of portrait of Britain. It wasn’t planned this way, but that project began at the start of the last government. I went as far as Thurso in the north, and then all the way down to Cornwall. It never ceases to amaze me how many interesting and diverse people we have here.

This was only taken a few weeks ago, on a visit to Milton Keynes. This is Arthur and Avis. They were sweet, a little shy but also very funny. They told me they were in their 62nd year of marriage, which touched me, as my parents have been married for the same time. It was only when I got home that I noticed that they had held hands for the photo.

Arthur moved to the UK from the Caribbean in 1957. Avis moved here only a little later. I moved from rural Scotland to south London 35 years ago, so I consider myself quite a long-term resident, but I’m nowhere as established as many of the Windrush families who came here. We have a couple on our street in their 90s. They’re such lovely, genuine people.

But we forget what an incredibly hard time the Windrush generation had coming here, moving away from their families to a completely different continent. They went through incredible discrimination, financial hardship, and worked the hardest jobs too – as cleaners, in the NHS, on the underground, on the buses. At the same time, they brought so much vibrancy and colour to our communities, pioneering the multiculturalism we see today.

What happened under this past government with the Windrush scandal was unforgivable, politics gone terribly wrong, a stain on the country. Let’s hope it never happens again. To me, the Windrush generation, if we look at a nation as a whole, they’re the best of us. We need to celebrate them more but we don’t. We should. JR

Mark Power

The Black Country, Dudley, 2011

An English teacher, TV actor, fish farm attendant and mural painter before he became a photographer in 1983, Mark Power has worked and exhibited internationally for four decades. His books include The Shipping Forecast, 26 Different Endings and two volumes of Good Morning America, documenting work in the US in the 2010s.

When I took this picture in Dudley, in the early 2010s, we were in a recession. I’d had a commission in the Black Country from an organisation called Multistory – I’d done some research and found out that the businesses that did well under that kind of austerity were beauty and war, so I was up there photographing beauty salons. Beauty salons and gentlemen’s clubs were everywhere.

I saw this teddy bear one day while driving. It was quite a large teddy bear, maybe three or four feet tall, sitting next to the roadside, on this stick. It was on a building site in this post-industrial landscape, the kind of site where huge anonymous buildings have been constructed in recent years, without character, to house stuff to be carted off all over the country. I remember parking up and taking a photo of it very quickly. It was the kind of site I didn’t want to hang around.

I don’t know why the teddy bear was there, of course, but I guess it could have been to brighten up the space a little bit. But it’s cute and not cute – there’s a kind of violence to it in the way it’s mounted. I don’t want to overthink it – it’s not a homeless person in a cardboard box, but a teddy bear on a stick. But there’s something lonely about that bear in that landscape. It’s sad and melancholic.

I did another public commission in Stoke-on-Trent the following year, and working in those small post-industrial societies, I felt I was beginning to understand the magnitude of what was happening to the country. I’d been living in this bubble in Brighton, where it took a long time before there were boarded-up shops, but there are now.

After Brexit, I was so fed up with this country that I couldn’t make work about this place any more. I turned my back on it artistically and started working in the US. I’m slightly disappointed in myself about that. Now I’m starting things afresh over here, but I wouldn’t say I’m over the Brexit thing. We’re kind of stuck with it, but we also seem to have fallen into this kind of attitude where we almost expect something to go wrong. That’s desperately sad. It didn’t used to be like that. JR

Craig Easton

From the series Thatcher’s Children, 22 December 2018

Craig Easton is a documentary photographer who was photographer of the year at the Sony world photography awards in 2021. This image is from his monograph Thatcher’s Children, which tracked a family – the Williamses from Blackpool – from a one-off shoot in 1992 and then reconnecting again from 2016 to 2022.

When I originally got back in touch with the Williams family in 2016, it wasn’t really to make new work at all. It was just that those original pictures had meant a lot to me and had caused quite a stir at the time. And I’d always thought: “What happened to those kids?”

I wasn’t too surprised to find that, sadly, they were pretty much in the same boat. The biggest single difference was that, although they were really struggling with the same issues as their parents in 1992, they were all in working households. And the effect on the kids didn’t seem to make any difference. So it puts a lie to that mantra that you work your way out of poverty. That’s really what that series is all about: once you’re trapped, you’re trapped.

The boy in this photograph is one of the children of the original people who I was working with. I used to spend a lot of time with the family and I’d play with the kids and roll around on the floor. Sometimes, I’d just go for a cup of tea and I wouldn’t take pictures at all. So this was not a “dive in for a couple of weeks and make a story about social deprivation”. This was a long-term look at societal problems.

Over the past 14 years, I think there’s been a constant move to the right. And the biggest thing for me has been Brexit: we had a European referendum to sort out a squabble in the Tory party that’s been going on for 50, 60 years. It feels like the whole country is a political football being kicked between the two wings of the Tory party, who are tearing themselves apart – and I’m sick of it.

The photographs in this series are not party political. The title of the book is Thatcher’s Children, but you see very clearly that it’s John Major and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and New Labour and Keir Starmer who are Thatcher’s children. It’s not the Williams family. Thatcherism and neoliberalism have become such a consensus in politics; the left-behind, forgotten families are just the victims of it. TL

Suki Dhanda

Elaf and Yaseen with daughter Noor, 26 January 2018

Suki Dhanda grew up in Slough, Berkshire, and studied at Arts University Plymouth, where she received an honorary fellowship. Her work focuses on marginalised identity, from teenage subcultures to Indian cab drivers in the aftermath of 9/11. Her portraits feature regularly in the Guardian and Observer.

In 2017, I was commissioned by Arts University Plymouth to create a new body of work about the city. At the time, Brexit had just happened and I was feeling very bitter about it, so I set out to capture images that would show Plymouth’s diversity and what it’s become since I studied there. I wanted to celebrate all the different people, even if the majority in the city voted to leave.

In Plymouth, no matter where you’re from, everyone wants to spend the day on the beach. That’s where I met Yaseen and Elaf, both lecturers from Iraq who’d received government sponsorship to study in the UK. They were lovely, so open and relaxed. Yaseen was studying a PhD in computer science and Elaf was doing a master’s in electrical engineering.

People can be so blinkered when they see a family who doesn’t look and dress like them, and make assumptions about why they’re here. The Tories have played into that. Of course, I understand the animosity from people who can’t afford to send their kids to university. Most students from the UK graduate burdened with debt and don’t have the freedom to study abroad. We have really closed ourselves in.

Yaseen and Elaf were an educated young couple with jobs back home that they were really committed to. That was the condition of their sponsorship – to go back and use their knowledge to teach people in Iraq. They stayed in Plymouth for four years and built some kind of home with their children, but they always knew they would return. I think people in this country need to be educated to understand that not everyone’s here to take their jobs.

At the end of the day, everyone wants a sense of belonging and to feel at home, but what makes a home is people. I think things would be different if people could meet families like Yaseen and Elaf’s in their own environment, rather than relying on platforms like Facebook to get their news. Orla Foster