5. Grains of Truth – National Rural Documentary Programme

"Archie Parkhouse bringing hay for sheep, Dolton, 1983" image by James Ravilious for the Beaford Archive © Beaford Arts
“Archie Parkhouse bringing hay for sheep, Dolton, 1983” image by James Ravilious for the Beaford Archive © Beaford Arts

Grains of Truth – the new rural documentary

The aim of all the projects put forward by the Rural Cultural Forum is to demonstrate how the arts, media and cultural sector can make a contribution to the restructuring of rural life in England, and serve also to inform policy on rural and agricultural development.  The changes taking place in the countryside caused by the increasing globalisation of regional economies coupled with the drive for sustainable solutions to global warming, are impacting in unexpected ways on the social, economic and environmental fabric of rural communities.  It is important to create a record of these using all the cultural and technological tools at our disposal.

Understanding rural change and reinforcing rural community self-esteem

The diversity and speed of the changes to the rural environment means that they may be difficult to comprehend using statistical means alone.  Often a consequence has arisen before it has been foreseen, and the data that would have explained it has gone for ever.  It is difficult for rural communities to manage change if, because of environmental and economic turbulence beyond their control, they feel powerless to protect themselves, as was certainly the situation during the devastating Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001.  Such sudden disruptions to rural life (flooding, avian flu), combined with the slow deterioration brought by declining social services, and the effects of the global economic downturn, are exacerbating the loss of social cohesion as the traditional concepts of rural community, agricultural economy and the countryside begin to fall apart.

FSA Photography Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1955
FSA Photography Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1955

The precedents for a national rural cultural documentary initiative

Against this background the RCF is advocating that a national rural cultural documentary initiative should be set up.   The immediate precedent for this is the FSA (Farm Security Adminisration) programme funded in the 1930s by the US Department of Agriculture (link to: Library of Congress photo archive).   Others include DATAR, a documentary project initiated by the French Government documenting the regional landscapes of France resulting in the publication Paysages Photographies. Pioneering rural documentation projects undertaken in this country include the Beaford Arts Ravilious Archive, Devon, and projects by Amber/Side Gallery, Newcastle, and the Rural Media Company in Hereford.  Citing these and other precedents, rural leaders and professional documentary photographers, film makers and artists, are now calling for the introduction of a nationally coordinated rural documentary initiative, developed over a minimum of 5 years.

Documenting rural social issues and related animal welfare and health concerns

As in all artistic and social documentary work these is a need for considerable integrity and sensitivity when recording social issues or contexts involving human suffering, and also to ensure that such documents and their subjects are not used or exploited via notions of ‘aesthetic autonomy’, academic objectivity or, ‘I’m only doing my job’, attitudes. Not that these approaches need disqualify excellent social documentary work in urban and rural contexts. 

Nick Broomfield GHOSTS
Rural Media Company Films on rural issues

More recently documentary projects about the plight of migrant rural workers, the food processing industry, animal welfare issues in farming and the documentation of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Crisis have all produced photography and film work of a consistently high standard of aesthetic and professional integrity. It can be done.

'Cultural Documents of FMD' poster
‘Cultural Documents of FMD’ poster

The Cultural Documents of FMD project
documenting the social, health and economic impact of FMD

This project brought the documentary work of many photographers together some of the main scientific, veterinary, media, rural community records which were also produced in connection with the 2001 FMD epidemic. This was also an attempt to inform a wider public understanding about the health, economic and environmental impact and social consequences of the 2001 outbreak/pandemic. It included documentary work produced by leading photographers, film makers, writers and artists in response to FMD and also acknowledge the important role played by the health, academic, veterinary, scientific and other professions in documenting the outbreak, and to ensure that their research work, records and findings are more widely accessible.

The project resulted in a major conference at Manchester Town Hall in 2006, entitled; Learning from FMD; enhancing society’s capacity to respond to future epidemics, which basically proposed that a cultural perspective could help to underline the positive outcomes and lessons to be learned from this event, as well as informing a more constructive public debate about any likley future Zoonoses related pandemics (e.g Avian Flu).

Nick May, ‘Till the Cows Come Home’
John Darwell, ‘Dark Days’ 
Chris Chapman Silence at Ramcliffe

More recntly a number of photographers and filmmakers have begun to structure an on-going Zoonoses – Animal Pandemics documentary initiative, to try and address the recurrence of such animal pandemics as, Avian Flu, Swine Flu and other diseases that connect humans and animals.

Social, economic and environmental outcomes

Such a project, they argue, would help rural communities both to understand their strengths and to see the economic, social and environmental problems facing them in a new light, and help them to frame creative responses.  One of the strongest arguments for mounting a rural social documentary initiative is in fact the wide range of experienced documentary film makers, photographers, artists, and new media practitioners we have in this country.   It is clear that, in addition to reinforcing community self esteem, the project would contribute new information of value in such areas as rural tourism and marketing, farm diversification, rural healthcare, animal welfare, and disease control, as well as informing the public debate on the predicted changes to rural landscapes due to climate change and agricultural reform.

Walker Evans: 'Allie Mae Burroughs', FSA project
Walker Evans: ‘Allie Mae Burroughs’, FSA project

Framing new artistic and aesthetic responses to the countryside

While it is useful, in arguing for public funding for such projects, to underline the economic, social and environmental benefits they will bring, it is also important to point out that the use of photography, film, new media and other art forms for social documentation can of course result in artworks of the highest international standard.  Other artistic outcomes are also possible, the formulation for example of a new post-agricultural landscape aesthetic, which in turn could inform the discourse on design and architecture in the countryside, and related planning policy.

Grains of Truth – a major rural record of our own time?

The objective of this proposal is the development, resourcing and implementation of a national 5 – 10 year rural documentation initiative involving as wide a range of photographers, film makers, writers and new media practitioners as possible, in partnership with rural and farming communities, resulting in a comprehensive and multi-stranded social and cultural document of rural change in the early 21st century.

The idea for such a documentation project has been in development for a number of years, with pilot projects part-funded by Arts Council England (North West, and East and West Midlands), and refined through a seriesof regional seminars and pilot exhibitions developed in dialogue with Nottingham Trent University Department of Photography.   The title ‘Grains of Truth’ was chosen in homage to the grainy black and white images the for which the American FSA project is celebrated.  It is also a recognition of the intellectual, artistic and professional rigour that will be required of artists working to assemble a true record of the social and cultural climate in which rural communities are striving to survive in Britain…

New Rural Documentary Photography Biennale and conference

The works produced during the lifetime of the rural documentary initiative would form the basis of a permanent archive to be housed at the  National Rural Cultural Centre, and for future International Rural Biennale exhibitions, conferences and publications

Dorothea Lage: 'Migrant Mother', FSA Farm Documentation project
Dorothea Lage: ‘Migrant Mother’, FSA Farm Documentation project