Mass Observation: This is your photo offers an examination of the role of photography in the Mass Observation Archive. Mass Observation (MO) was founded in 1937 as a radical experiment in social science, art and documentary. Its founders aimed to create a new kind of realism in response to the economic and political conditions leading up to World War II, aiming to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ through artistic means and by collecting anecdotal evidence from people’s everyday lives and experiences. The Archive, currently held at the University of Sussex, consists of extensive written accounts of daily life, ephemera and photographs, while other works now form part of national museum collections.
Leading figures in MO’s formation included the ornithologist and explorer Tom Harrisson, and the journalist and poet Charles Madge. Contributions from documentarians such as filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, photographer Humphrey Spender, and artists such as William Coldstream and Julian Trevelyan, in addition to feedback gathered by ‘observers’ in the field, helped to create a kaleidoscopic view of ‘ordinary life’. While individual practitioners often chose specific places to study – Spender famously photographed working class life in Bolton and Blackpool – other anonymous MO observers from across Britain were issued with instructions or ‘directives’ asking for information on a diverse variety of topics, from noting subjects of conversation in pubs to the way people arranged ornaments on their mantelpieces.
MO’s experimental ambitions became more regulated when it began to work closely with Government Departments during the war. It analysed people’s responses to everything from political personalities, fears of spying, happiness, to attitudes towards art, sexual habits and shopping. In the late 1940s, MO provided the background information for two publications supplemented with photographs by a British pioneer of colour photography John Hinde – Exmoor Village and British Circus Life, that looked away from a verité style to visualise community life in more staged terms. MO’s turn away from the social landscape towards extensive market research followed, with a more commercial agenda throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The papers that constituted its more questioning approach to social realism later became the foundations of the Mass Observation Archive in its new home at the University of Sussex in 1970.
In 1981, MO was revived as a ‘life writing’ project that concentrated on the importance of first person testimony alone, rekindling the spirit of recording individual lives and experiences that characterised the early years. In its new incarnation, autobiographical responses from its voluntary observers often included photographic material, including amateur snapshots and other mass forms of photography. These were often accompanied by extensive written accounts to questions concerning all aspects of life – from daily routines, gardens, attitudes towards war to the smoking ban and national events such as the royal wedding. Photography here becomes a more active part of wider narratives about people’s experiences, providing us with an account that is both pictorially and emotionally compelling. What marks this later phase of MO’s visual content is not only the familiar but also the unexpected ways in which photographs are put to work. In doing so, they represent a way of seeing that is both intimate and privileged, revealing more about the complex forces at work in people’s lives.