By Ruth Toda-Nation.
In the 1980’s my home of Merseyside was so often portrayed in relation to its economic deprivation. The Toxteth riots were in 1981 and Liverpool and the surrounding areas suffered badly from high unemployment in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I was 16 and this was my first attempt as a photographer, never having had the opportunity to hold a camera before. I wanted to show the warm hearted, strong, and proud people that I loved. In my naïve way I shot as close to the people as I could get whereby drawing the focus away from the deprived environment, allowing the people themselves to shine.
This was as much about finding my home, my roots, and my sense of place as it was about documenting this proud city and its people. In a way I was seeing my home through the eyes of an outsider, having spent my formative years as part of a diverse community in Japan. My childhood experiences had made me curious about other people and returning to Merseyside at secondary school age had left me wondering where I was from, and where I would call my home.
Wallasey School of Art
I left school at 15, and enrolled at Wallasey School of Art. I had gone to Wirral Grammar School for Girls. In those days getting into a grammar school was considered a real privilege but there was little preparation, you sat the exam, passed, or failed and that set your life path. We were expected to go on to hold careers in law, teaching or medicine, but I didn’t fit that mould, I wanted to draw and paint. The head mistress derided me when I announced that I was enrolling in art school telling me that, my life would come to nothing, and I was an ostrich with my head buried in the sand.
Art school opened my mind and as soon as I shot my first roll of film I was hooked, I had found my visual language. I was influenced by some passionate and individual teachers at Wallasey school of art and in my final year by Tom Wood, who encouraged me to take my portfolio down to some London universities. I saw glimpses of his work at the time, but I never really grasped the enormity of his work and the historical overview of an era that he was creating.
He wasn’t from Merseyside, but he was there documenting ‘us’. I used to see him gliding past, shooting on the top deck of double decker buses, and walking around the streets taking photos, with 2 or 3 cameras hanging around his neck, one for colour the other black and white. I knew he documented at The Chelsea Reach nightclub, so I never went there again. I didn’t want to be one of his subjects I wanted to be the one doing the documenting!
I documented people on the streets of Birkenhead and later, on the Liverpool side of the Mersey, at The Pier Head and Toxteth, Liverpool 8. I was interested in Toxteth because that was where my roots were, my great grandparents had moved down from Scotland when Liverpool was in its heyday, and I felt a draw to the area. We were told that the Toxteth riots were race riots, but that’s not what I saw and that’s what I was questioning when I walked the streets of Toxteth. To me it seemed more about the youth expressing frustration against the establishment, against the police. We were afraid of the police, and back then the police tactics were often brutal and racist. Distrust in the police was a significant causal factor of the uprising.
Like the beautiful but dilapidated buildings, the older men dressed smartly in ties, macs, flat caps, and trilbies, and the ladies in dresses and hats out doing their shopping, seemed to be gifting us a reflection into a bygone era. The juxtaposition between the newer eclectic mix of cultures and ethnicity in Liverpool, and the older generation that held their proud history in their gaze were the things that intrigued me, and I wanted to acknowledge this diversity in my work. I was of course mesmerised by and documented some of the grand old buildings, a powerful testament to the history of the place, but I was more fascinated by the people I met there. For me Liverpool is and always will be about the people.
After graduating from University of Westminster (Harrow) in 1989, I returned to Japan to live and work as a photographer. I came back to the UK in 2000 and I’m currently living in Milton Keynes where I continue to document the city and the people around me. My current project ‘Our Lockdown Garden’ will be published by The Mindful Editions, https://themindfuleditions.co.uk/