A collection of photographs documenting Scotland’s slums are coming home almost 50 years after they were taken.
Commissioned in 1968 by housing and homelessness charity Shelter, the ‘Make Life Worth Living’ collection by Nick Hedges will be shown in a free open air exhibition in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square.
The exhibition comes after the documentary photographer agreed to lift a 40-year restriction on the use of the photographs in Scotland. Nick had originally limited their use – as many feature young children and their families – in order to protect the subjects.
One iconic image shot in the Gorbals in Glasgow shows a young mother pushing her baby, surrounded by rubble. According to the photographer he met the smiling teenager just as she was about to enter a derelict tenement, ready to carry the buggy up three flights of stairs to get to her flat.
He recalls how she told him that just a few days before, she had been in bed with her husband and they had both woken up to loud noises. It was a wrecking ball, demolishing the tenement block. Her husband ran out screaming for the demolition to stop. The conditions were so bad the demolition men hadn’t thought that people could still be living there, and didn’t think to check.
Another image shows children playing on swings in a playground by the shipyards in Govan, Glasgow – where Nick Hedges took many of the photos.
Nick, now in his 70s, spent three years visiting some of Scotland’s poorest and most deprived areas, documenting housing conditions and quashing the myth that only people on the streets are homeless.
The exhibition in St Andrew Square features 20 photographs out of a collection of over 1000 images. Sponsored by PwC, the exhibition will run until October 30.
One image within the original collection shows a family living in one room in Glasgow’s Maryhill.
During their meeting with Nick they recounted to him how they slept with the lights on in a bid to scare off rats. They told him that one night they had counted 16 rats in the small, damp room.
Nick said: “The exhibition marks a homecoming for these photographs and I’m thrilled that Shelter Scotland has worked tirelessly to ensure that the public will have access to them – to see the conditions and levels of sheer poverty faced by families in recent history.
“I was a young man when I took these photos. They shaped my understanding of documentary photography – how images can serve a purpose. In the years which followed, I became committed to photographing the everyday life of people. I never pursued anything more exotic.
“There is no single picture that I am most proud of in the collection. The people’s words, the stories I heard while I photographed them are just as important.
“Together they mean more than any single image can.”
Nick, who knocked door-to-door to speak to people, says that the occupants were heartened that someone was listening and taking an interest in their living conditions.
He added: “I haven’t forgotten any of the names of people I photographed or the conversations we had years ago. They are just as clear in my mind today as if they happened yesterday.
“Whilst in one sense these photographs are a piece of social history, in another sense they serve to remind us that the crisis in housing is as significant today as it was then. The insecurity, the ill health and the anxieties that young families, the poor and the elderly face is unfortunately as real now as it was then.
“It points to our failure as a society to address the basic needs of our fellow citizens.”
Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said: “These photographs are a sobering piece of history not only for Shelter Scotland, but the nation as a whole. They show us how far we have come in providing safe, secure and affordable housing to the people of Scotland, but also that we must do more for the tens of thousands of families and individuals still desperate for a home to call their own.
“Almost 50 years after these pictures were taken, it is a mark of shame that almost 5000 children in Scotland will wake up tomorrow homeless, often living in cold, damp and dangerous conditions. I encourage everyone to visit the exhibition in St Andrew Square and to share in this important piece of Scotland’s social history.”
Lindsay Gardiner, regional chairman, PwC in Scotland, added: “As a firm, we recognise that we have a role to play in helping our communities address the challenges of social inequality, poverty, and unemployment.
“Through our extensive programmes we support academic attainment and job readiness in schools, we assist social entrepreneurs as they develop and grow their businesses, and, as a firm, we have been an accredited Living Wage employer for a number of years.
“I strongly believe that when there is an overwhelming need to fight prejudice and inequality, and when people decide to change and take action, they can make a remarkable difference.
“Working with local communities, we have seen some truly fantastic examples of this – but we recognise that more can, and should be done.
“I hope that by sponsoring the Shelter Scotland exhibition we can help throw a spotlight on these issues and encourage more people to work together to drive positive change within Scotland.”
The Make Life Worth Living exhibition will feature in St Andrew Square until October 30.
Images can also be seen and shared at www.shelterscotland.org/lifeworthliving