Research point: Spender’s Worktown

We’re asked to “Briefly reflect in your learning log on Humphrey Spender’s documentary style and the themes of Worktown, with particular emphasis on the ethics and purpose of the project.

The current archive site for the Worktown collection is rather than the site given in the course notes, so it is that which I have used for this research.

The style of the images was what I’d call classic social documentary – unposed scenes of everyday life in the communities being observed. The themes as listed on the Bolton Worktown website – though possibly retrospectively categorised, it’s not clear – were:

  • Ceremonies
  • Grafitti
  • Industry
  • Leisure
  • Observers
  • Politics
  • Pub
  • Religion
  • Shopping
  • Sport
  • Street
  • Work

The overarching objective of the parent project Mass Observation was to chronicle the people of Britain going about their everyday lives – there wasn’t a strong social reform element to it, it was intended to be very neutral. So the purpose was a kind of long-term anthropological study of the British people.

The course notes ask us to look at the ethics of the project. I didn’t find anything particularly problematic about the project from an ethical point of view, although it’s possible that I’m looking at the situation with 21st century eyes – maybe candid documentary photography didn’t go down too well in Bolton in the late 1930s, and it was seen as more of an imposition into private lives than we might think so today?

One aspect of Mass Observation that I found fascinating and very enlightening was the fact that the photography was not originally seen as a key part of the study:

“Paradoxically, though, Spender’s photographs, which are now recognised as an important part of the Mass Observation archive, were never used at the time. ‘The images were always there to provide a focus for the written material, which was the core of the project,’ elaborates Russell Roberts […] ‘They were purely informational and not meant to be artistic in any way. So from Spender’s photographs of a crowd at a Bolton Wanderers game, the Mass Observation researchers could count how many men were wearing hats at a football match. It was this kind of statistical detail that they collated and processed in their excavation of the everyday.'” (The Guardian, 2013)

It’s not clear whether Spender saw his work in the same light, or whether he had claims to any higher art or documentary worth. It seems odd that he could have been happy with the only audience for his work being the researchers treating his images as statistical data. Maybe this gave him the freedom to just capture what was in front of him, with no agenda.

Deliberate or not, this lack of immediate audience does lend the project an extra level of objectivity – it’s only now, looking back on the images, that one can discern their relevance to the social circumstances of the time. Spender and his peers still had the final say on where to stand and when to press the button, but to a large degree the very nature of Mass Observation’s limited use of the images leads to a minimal authorial input – and therefore more likely to be a reasonably objective ‘truth’.


Bolton Worktown (accessed 09/05/2016)

The Way We Were: Mass Observation (accessed 09/05/2016)


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