Martin Jenkinson may not be the most familiar name to many in the contemporary art world, however there's a high chance that anyone who has spent time understanding pivotal moments in Sheffield’s history since the 1980s will have come across his photography.
Jenkinson made some of his most recognisable work during the 1980s when he documented many of the protests surrounding the miners' strike that were widely covered in the national press. Working primarily as a photojournalist, he captured a raw emotion in his subjects that can often get lost when documented through the lens, reprinted in newspapers and distributed to different contexts across the UK.
Jenkinson was not born in Sheffield but became tied into the fabric of the city in 1976 when he moved here with his family and began working in a wire-making factory. Sheffield became a rich subject of his photography, which makes the city's Weston Park Museum a particularly appropriate site for Who We Are, a new major retrospective of his work.
The exhibition leads with the local. The section titled Home features a series of photos that capture Sheffield landscapes at a point of change. Much of the industry that was once the main anchor for the city was in decline, leaving thousands of people unemployed and without the same sense of shared purpose. What Jenkinson manages to capture, though, is the resilience and humour of the individuals who at that time found themselves in a state of abandon, his photos almost acting as an advert for the essence of what many people believe it is to be "Northern".
Jenkinson’s work shows a strong social conscience, and many of his series focused on political issues and fights for freedom and equality. His work for the People’s March for Jobs in 1981 is a clear example of this; he not only acted as the official photographer but also involved himself in the marches. Photographs from the perspective of protesters were rare at the time, when much of the media portrayed them as subordinate and out of control. Jenkinson's photos therefore were unique in that they gave an additional voice to the protest and allowed the stories of those involved in the action to be faithfully documented for all time.
Jenkinson’s interest in people as individuals with particular circumstances and their own stories was paramount throughout his work. One of the most evident examples of this can be seen in the section of the exhibition titled More in Common. Jenkinson would often travel by motorbike across Europe, camera in hand, ready to capture whatever caught his eye. In 1982 he was commissioned by the Morning Star newspaper to travel to Palestine. The result of this trip was a series documenting the lives of people in the occupied West Bank. Jenkinson was interested in a shared humanity – something that was universal and based around compassion and consideration – and the affection that his photographs display is a credit to his passion for listening to the stories of every person, without prejudice. The importance of understanding and being empathetic to others, irrespective of where they’re from, is a message that seems particularly apt for us to be reminded of in the present climate.
Retrospective exhibitions can have a tendency to present ideas that are of their own time and have little relevance to the present day. Who We Are, however, asks questions that were not only prevalent during the 1980s but that continue to be fundamental and demanding of investigation today. The exhibition title itself prompts an open-ended rhetorical question, and through presenting the inner lives of other people through the format of documentary it asks the audience to consider the 'we' rather than the 'I'. The exhibition is an exercise in understanding both history and humanity that emphasises the importance of collecting the stories of everyone, regardless of age, class, gender or race.
All photos by Martin Jenkinson.
- Words by
- David McLeavy