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“Did she heat or did she eat?”

No, this is not a slogan from a cost of living crisis campaign but rather one of the sombre reflections from Ella Murtha in Paul Sng’s latest documentary, Tish. It does also, by complete coincidence, echo the name of a food bank in Waltham Forest, London. Ella is the daughter of photographer Tish Murtha, the film’s namesake, and our narrative guiding hand in this touching biographical documentary.

Sng begins chronologically, in the Elswick district of Newcastle, an area renowned in recent history for rampant unemployment rates and poverty following the collapse of its shipbuilding industry. The third oldest of ten children, Murtha was not simply a visual documentor of working-class communities but one of its active participants. This is what lies at the core of the film, and her work, as a whole. Murtha may have been documenting the marginalised communities across Elswick, or later on the dancers of seedy Soho, but it often feels as if she was documenting herself.

Tish opens with a chapter on childhood before swiftly moving to formative college years studying at the School of Documentary Photography at The University of Wales, Newport. It becomes clear early into the film that Murtha is solely focused, devout almost, on social documentary photography despite the more lucrative opportunities offered by advertorial and commercial work. This struggle – the creative spirit at odds with the need to make a living – would haunt Murtha for the rest of her life. Clips of speeches by Thatcher reverberate uncomfortably in today’s era of austerity and depictions of food poverty towards the end of the film are depressingly timeless. Sng remains true to his source material. Any romantic notions of a rags-to-riches tale find no fertile ground; there are no happy endings to be found here.

There is a definitive theme of joy found through Murtha’s lens – the Youth Unemployment (1981) series especially – instead of any pitiful or macabre quality you may expect from a poverty-stricken area. The array of family, friends and mentors who are interviewed by Ella Murtha fondly recall derelict buildings which were childhood hangouts, while abandoned cars become a plaything for children. Elswick, despite its endemic unemployment, was very much still the home of these families. The same can be said for Murtha’s brief stint in London where she documented the sex workers of 1980s Soho. Just substitute abandoned cars for seedy streets and the same intimacy is present across her ‘London By Night’ (1983) collection, with Murtha’s friend Karen Leslie, a dancer and stripper, serving as the focal point.

Voice-overs from Maxine Peak give life to written meditations from Murtha’s diary, a soulful and honest addition that offer a glimpse of the emotions imbued in her words. Less soulful are the occasional re-enactments of a young Tish Murtha meandering around a nostalgically hued kitchen. Not that these scenes are badly executed – they are, at least, placed at moments of natural narrative pause. But it jars nonetheless. Perhaps it is the soft blur and colour palette. A more likely culprit is the inherent performativity necessary in any impersonation. For a photographer whose work is epitomised by the very essence of documentary (that is, non-performativity), the inclusion of wistful, acted-out sequences grates. Nostalgic it may be, but necessary it is not.

Murtha’s photography was largely overlooked in favour of other, typically male, contemporaries. This is not to derail Tish into some overwrought gender debate, but rather recognise the plain truth. Women were, and still are, more vulnerable than men when facing financial vulnerability – doubly so in today’s cost of living crisis, with instances of young mothers reliant on theft to get baby formula or nappies. The true criminals in these cases are the State and its erosion of welfare funding. Ella confesses a burden of guilt – she wonders if her mother would have found greater success if not for her birth. An unfair and heart-wrenching thought but one which is grounded in a depressing truth: childbirth and child-rearing too often comes at the cost of a woman’s career. Life’s greatest gift is amongst the government’s greatest failings.

Near the end of the film there is an apt analogy: coverage of working-class communities tend to feature artists who parachute in and then parachute out of poverty-stricken communities. The result? An audience momentarily reacts with empathy before moving on. If paratrooping is the norm, then consider Tish to be a siege of the senses, commanding not just awareness but direct involvement in the daily lives of these communities. The film’s orchestration assists handily, with a score dominated by the baritone timbre of cellos. Eloquent yet tribal, there are also timely percussive inflections echoing the old industrial yards of South Shields, Newcastle in Murtha’s homeland. Sophie Coldicott words it best: ‘Tish does not treat her subjects as conduits of suffering, but instead highlights their resilience and joy.’ Paul Sng does much the same.


Jethro is the film critic at FETCH London and a freelance culture journalist. He has had words in Empire, The Big Issue and other outlets.


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