Si Barber Photographs Britain’s ‘Big Society’
Is the UK’s austerity program really such a terrible thing? Sure, in times of crisis people do tend to smash each other in the head more often, underestimate the value of their own lives, and end up cast adrift in a hellish world of drugs, mental illness, and homelessness. Then again—and sorry to pull rank here, but I’m from fucking Greece, so I know—austerity also helps strip the pointless bullshit from people’s lives. No more taxis. No more expensive hangover pizzas. No more white peacocks for your garden. No more diamond slippers… these things don’t seem quite so important when you’re preoccupied with figuring out where tonight’s dinner is going to come from.
Si Barber is a Norfolk-based photographer who, for the past six or so years, has been sensitive enough to the hilarity of life in credit crunched Britain to photograph it honestly. I don’t know if that means anything coming from a foreigner, but browsing through his The Big Society project I’m met with images of the Britain I dreamed of as a kid and came to love as an adult—the wonderfully fucked-up loner of Europe.
I spoke to Si about his work.
VICE: Hi, Si. So you’ve been working on your Big Society project for a while now, right?
I am always working on The Big Society. When I started it in 2007, I could just spend a couple of hundred dollars on diesel, accommodation, and food, and run off to Scotland for the weekend—it would all just be absorbed within my business, which is commission-based photography. Now that times have gotten a bit harder, I try to get as much out of a shoot as possible. I’ll go off and do two or three things at the same time.
Do you ever get involved in a project you absolutely hate?
I don’t hate any of them, but I do find the imagination of some of the people who commission work fairly limited. I also work quite a lot for broadsheet newspapers, and they have a limited view on what constitutes a good picture. They might ask for a bit of side-lighting, for example, which is a little bit old hat.
What I like about your pictures is their simplicity. It seems like you just point your camera at something interesting and take a picture that makes sense.
Is there a particular image that stands out to you?
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Austerity’s Drug of Choice: Sisa
Standing in the Athens police headquarters, interviewing the director of the drug unit, I realised I had a bag of chemically enhanced crystal meth in my pocket. I’d bought it the night before from a Greek homeless man and had forgotten to throw it away. After the interview, I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, which is when some officers noticed the film crew I had brought along, who were recording from a distance.
Minutes later the cops dragged us into a holding room, the little packet of drugs still stuffed in my pants. They made some calls, glared at us and eventually, reluctantly, released us – without ever searching me, thankfully. On my way out, I threw the baggie into the first garbage can I passed.
Several Greek police stations have been firebombed in recent months, so the cops have reason to be nervous, especially when they notice that they are being filmed. On our first evening in Athens, a different group of officers approached us and, after spotting our film crew down the street, demanded to see our papers. They deleted our footage and detained us for a couple of hours, until we’d managed to get our passports delivered to the station. Greece is a paranoid place at the moment. The police, fascists, anarchists, dealers and drug users are all fighting for local supremacy and no one trusts anyone else.
The night before our close call at the Athens police headquarters, I was approached by a group of homeless people, one of whom was smoking some horrible-smelling stuff through what appeared to be a meth bowl made from an old lightbulb. Although I don’t speak Greek, I managed to let him know that I wanted to buy some of the drug, colloquially known as sisa. The homeless guy wandered off with my five-euro note, and afterward an old man grabbed my arm and shouted, “No, no take! Very bad.” I wasn’t going to smoke it, but I was very curious about Greece’s infamous new drug.
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The Greeks Just Won’t Stop Fighting and I’m Bored
It’s May 2010 and I’m sitting with my coworkers in front of the miniature TV we managed to get the IT guy to install in our office in Athens. We’re watching the news for updates on the bombing of Marfin Bank on Stadiou Street. No one in the office is doing any work. In fact, those in my department are the only people who showed up to work at all, since today marks one of the first in a series of national strikes.
Instead, we’re all crouching in front of the TV, which prompts my boss to shout from the door of her office, “Can someone tell me what could be so important that you guys have yet to post anything about Lady Gaga’s Armani costume for American Idol?” Bless her, she likes mixing her morning pills with a shot of whiskey.
One year later—October 2011—and I’ve flown to Athens from London with three VICE staffers to cover a two-day-long national strike for our series Teenage Riot. It’s boiling hot, the people are angry, and I’m an intern desperate for a job at VICE, so I spend the next couple of days running through protesting crowds and away from blocks of rock, clouds of tear gas, and flagpole-swinging communists. I have no idea how hanging out in the closet of Greek Vogue as a teenager led to this, but I’m loving it.
But now, I’m so fucking bored of it. Yesterday saw yet another national strike in Greece, one that was very similar to the one we filmed last year. The weather was perversely hot for mid-October, thousands of people gathered in Syntagma Square to protest a bunch of new austerity measures, Molotov cocktails were thrown in the air, and a man died.
I understand that should make me angry, but all it’s done is make me feel depressed and confused. It’s been three years since the bombing of Marfin Bank and, in these three years, I’ve managed to move from London to Athens, then back again, change jobs twice, go through a couple of boyfriends, drop acid at fashion week, and attend a few too many weddings.
The place where I come from, however, hasn’t changed one bit. It keeps burning itself to the ground, being refurbished, then burned down again. Every year, a little before the passing of new austerity measures, we hear that things are looking up—that the economy is back on track—only to then see bigger cuts to our parents’ pension cheques and a rise of support for the extremist right-wing party, Golden Dawn.
Is this madness ever going to end? And is protesting (read: rioting) really the best way to go about changing things?
Having fled to London just before the real shit hit the fan, I hardly feel like I have the right to pass judgement on a situation I only encounter on Christmas and during the summer holidays, so I called my friend Petros to chat about what’s going on.
VICE: Hey man. First of all, a guy died today and a guy died almost exactly one year ago.
Petros: That’s true. But the guy today died because of heart failure during the demo before any tear gas was thrown, which was what caused the death of that protester last year. Not that that makes things any better. Also, both guys were PAME (Communist front) members.
Spooky. What really upset me last year was how PAME was protesting alongside us on the first day, but turned against us by the second. My boss and I got chased by a group of men waving red flagpoles at us.
The thing with PAME is that they would always hold their own demos at completely separate times from the rest of us. So, when they announced they’d be joining in last year, that was a first. Everyone was surprised. After what happened, they announced that was the last time they were going to join in and just went back to their old way of doing things, which is meeting earlier than the rest of us, walking to the parliament, then walking right past it. That’s pretty much it. That’s what they did yesterday, too.
Members of PAME demonstrating.
So they pretty much censored themselves. What about far-right elements? What’s the presence of the Golden Dawn at demos these days?
Non-existent, or at least not obvious. Of course there must be far-right elements, but the larger sentiment is mostly liberal. In fact, a lot of yesterday’s chants were against the Golden Dawn or linking the Golden Dawn to the police. My two favorites are, “Let’s get together and kick the Nazis out of Parliament!” and “Beware, Beware. Golden Dawners in uniform!”