A collective of documentary photographers and film-makers and gallery workers based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Amber was founded in 1968 and has since focused on the lives of working-class and marginalised communities across the North East. The collection it has amassed over that 50-year period is drawn on for regular exhibitions in its own Side Gallery and in its continuing engagement with communities. Currently there are eight people in the collective, all part-time; this includes Graeme Rigby, who first began working for Amber in the 1980s writing exhibition texts for the gallery, and became part of the collective in 1999. In addition, Amber’s team includes gallery workers and an education team which, since 2015, has been developing participative projects in communities and schools. Its annual turnover is between £200,000 and £350,000; after a few unstable years financially, Amber is imminently rejoining the Arts Council England National Portfolio, and also recently received a three-year grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to support its work in schools.
Mission: a living archive of working-class communities
For many years, says Graeme Rigby, Amber avoided defining a mission statement, preferring instead to use a quote by the philosopher R.G. Collingwood, from his 1938 book The Principles of Art: “The artist must prophesise not in the sense that he foretells things to come but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, but what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death.”
The resistance to individualism, and focus on the inner heart of a community, still describe how Amber works. Dedicated since its foundation to creating “documents of working-class life”, it has increasingly focused on the North East of England, where “there is still, relative to a number of parts of the country, a very strong working-class identity in the culture”. And in the field of documentary, says Rigby, “it’s not just about what you do as an artist, it’s what people are doing through you: genuinely opening up to thinking about their lives; taking the opportunity to see that represented” – often in the knowledge that “their lives have been distorted in the mainstream media”.
Although Amber’s philosophical approach hasn’t changed much, its materials have (with film gradually being replaced by cheaper digital processes), and so has “class experience, and the number of marginalised communities; also we have recognised more marginalised cultures that were already in existence.” More recent changes have occurred through “often quite highly qualified, aspirational middle-class asylum seekers” being housed in “spare capacity housing next to indigenous white working-class families who have three or even four generations of not having work, where there has been a collapse of aspiration.” Through its exhibitions and documentary work, Amber aims to create a space in which these disparate communities can meet. Also, through valuing working-class experience – within “a culture that is less engaged with working-class opportunity” than it was in the 1960s when the collective formed – Amber hopes to foster social unity, because: “If people feel that their own lives are recognised, they’re happier to recognise other people’s lives.”
“If people feel that their own lives are recognised, they’re happier to recognise other people’s lives.”
Hidden stories, silenced voices
Over the years Amber has documented every kind of working-class community, from children at a dance school to the colourful characters of a fish quay to teenage mums. In particular, it has an extensive body of work created with former ship-building and mining communities: people who, says Rigby, “have effectively been told that they are no longer relevant”, whose histories “have been assiduously erased. One of the things that you come across is a silence on what was an incredibly traumatic process of change for those communities, and a real absence in terms of understanding, particularly from young people, of why things are the way they are.”
“One of the things that you come across is a silence on what was an incredibly traumatic process of change for those communities, and a real absence in terms of understanding, particularly from young people, of why things are the way they are.”
Amber sees its collection of film and photography – by its own members and other leading documentary artists – as a “living archive”, which has the potential to inspire people “to document the histories and contemporary experiences of their own communities.” Depending on its funding status it has pursued a “really active touring policy”, and in a more recent development has created an education strand for primary schools. When working with school groups, Amber aims to involve “the kind of people we would interview or photograph in a community, so the kids can interview and photograph them, and people can tell stories really richly. Schools are interested in this for community cohesion; the adults value the concentration and engagement of the kids, and having the opportunity to explain their stories is a really emotional experience; and it is all moving towards building a greater capacity for looking at communities, understanding communities, documenting the various communities and understanding the histories.”
Continuity is vital to Amber’s collective process. It’s not just that “there are still a couple of people in the collective who were there right at the beginning”; it’s also that some of the relationships with communities carry across decades. This has several advantages:
1: Charting change
Since “working on a documentary project enables people to reflect on their lives,” says Rigby, the artists become witness to individual changes in their subjects: “how they feel about themselves, what they expect of themselves, and what they’re then able to do”. On a wider, social scale, Amber is able to maintain a sense of continuity between generations of people not only by “taking work back to the communities whose story it is sharing”, but by engaging with the population shifts that come with regeneration. In particular, the complex interrelationships between new estates and older housing areas (some of which were demolished) were problematic. Rigby admits that Amber has, at times, been slow to recognise the richness of some of these narratives.
“Working on a documentary project enables people to reflect on their lives…how they feel about themselves, what they expect of themselves, and what they’re then able to do.”
Whenever Amber begins working in a new community, it needs to “earn trust. One of the things we do through participative work is raise people’s expectations in terms of their rights and what they should expect from somebody telling their story.” Where Amber has a longer relationship with a community, however, that trust is fast-tracked: “There is often somebody in the community who will vouch for us and that’s really helpful.”
3: New work from old
In the 1970s, Amber photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen spent some time documenting the working-class terraced streets in Byker, before they were demolished to be replaced with the Byker Wall Estate. The community retained the photographs, and exhibited them for several years in a community centre – where they were “used to introduce the community to the migrant families who were coming in to the estate” in the early 2000s. In turn this inspired a new project, with Konttinen “creating portraits of the different communities that now inhabit the estate”.
Rigby admits that Amber’s work fell from fashion for several years – and funding fell away with it. “We’ve had quite a few struggles over the years in terms of sustaining the practice, but one of our strengths is that we have had the capacity to reduce outgoings when times have been hard.” Although it’s in a much more positive position now, and able to generate income through its collection, which can then be used to support the production of new work, it still encounters two key difficulties:
1: Short-term funding
“Funders tend to tell you to work on schemes and to support projects of up to three years – but a lot of the best work that we’ve been involved in has been open-ended at the start: you don’t know where it’s going to go and it might take two years, it might take five years, it might take ten. That’s how you work with people in a meaningful way, and open up to the benefit of what they have to contribute. It could take a year or two before they’ll even trust you enough to open up.”
2: An excess of admin
Changes in arts funding have had two distinct impacts on arts organisations: firstly, “under the Gordon Brown Treasury, the arts got more resources – but it became much more directive”: that is, there was a higher expectation of “addressing governmental agendas”, and demonstrating that with evidence. Rigby notes that “agendas have shifted in Amber’s direction, to concepts of health, well-being and place. We’ve always worked in that territory, but we have benefited from working in an organic way – and the specific needs of application and reporting processes makes that harder. You spend more time doing stuff on computers than the actual work.”
Having been “marginalised in the arts sector since the late 1980s/early 1990s”, Amber now feels that “the territory that we’re involved in – captured imagery – has become far more central to everybody’s lives and culturally imperative.” At the same time, artists are directed by Arts Council agendas to “be more serious about the relationship with ‘disenfranchised’ or ‘hard-to-reach’ communities”. Both of which put Amber in a positive place to move into its sixth decade. For that, says Rigby, it needs “to bring in the next generation of people who will continue this work. It’s really important that we can create the opportunities through which younger film-makers, photographers, curators, and writers can become involved. The form of the collective going forwards is very much going to be up to the next generation.”
“The territory that we’re involved in – captured imagery – has become far more central to everybody’s lives and culturally imperative.”
To that end, Amber is working to create a number of project and volunteer opportunities “in the gallery, in production, in the archive, in learning and participation”, so that people can see how the collective already works. Rigby sees it as an advantage that when new people join the collective, “they do so at both chief executive and dogsbody level. It doesn’t suit everybody, but there are lots of people who don’t flourish in hierarchies.”
Image: In Fading Light (shoot), 1989, Peter Fryer. Courtesy of Amber.