Hidden truths - Museums Association

Hidden truths

Photographer and activist Red Saunders tells Simon Stephens the vision behind his Hidden Project, which shines a light on historic struggles for social justice
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Simon Stephens
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Saunders’ photographic recreation of Wat Tyler and the peasants’ revolt in 1381

Among the many exciting new things to see at Derby’s Museum of Making, which reopened in May, are three artworks by Red Saunders. The works are part of the photographer and activist’s Hidden Project, which reimagines historic moments in the struggle of working people for democracy and social justice.

These take the form of large-scale tableaux vivants (living pictures) and often feature dissenters, revolutionaries, radicals and non-conformists who have been hidden from history. The giant images are created by taking lots of separate shots that are stitched together using the Photoshop editing tool to make them appear as a single scene. The process, which includes highly skilled digital retouching, is linked to the Victorian idea of tableaux photography where they used to cut out  negatives and join them together.

The late Labour MP Tony Benn was the original patron for the project and the works have been shown at museums and galleries all over the UK.

Red Saunders’ giant tableau The Orrery is inspired by Derby artist Joseph Wright’s ground-breaking painting, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766)

The concept is very much linked to Saunders’ activism and his work as a photographer and artist. Early in his career he was involved in radical theatre and he later founded Rock Against Racism, a movement that started in the mid-1970s and combined politics and music to confront a rise in racism and far-right politics.

“When we launched Rock Against Racism in 1976 with a letter to the music press with a bunch of friends, we used what we had learned back in the 60s with agitprop theatre,” Saunders says. “It was a very tight group of people who had the confidence to do it because we had all also been involved in sit-ins, Vietnam solidarity events and had organised things such as right-to-work campaigns, so it did not seem insurmountable to do a big anti-racism campaign. We wanted to use music and politics together and when Steel Pulse, Aswad, the Clash and Tom Robinson came on board, it went bang, like a rocket ship.”

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This rocket ship took off with two large-scale concerts in London’s Victoria Park and Brockwell Park but the movement also involved a series of smaller music events and other activities all over the UK.

The giant Hidden tableau recreates a meeting of the London Chartists in Whitechapel in 1842
Shooting star

In parallel to his activism, Saunders’ photographic career was evolving. He started as an apprentice, then became an assistant at photography studios in London in the 1960s. Towards the end of the decade his big break came when David King gave him an opportunity at the new Sunday Times colour supplement. King, a designer and art director at the magazine, later designed posters for Rock Against Racism.

“Working with people like Dave King, I realised that theatre was influencing my style of portraits. I was never a snapper and I used colour, not black and white. I did not really like documentary that much. Maybe that was because of the theatre and the theatricality that colour pictures give you.”

Later in his career, Saunders travelled the world as a landscape photographer for the architecture and design magazine Domus. He used a plate camera to take  multiple images that were used together to capture the scale of the spectacular landscapes. When the Domus work ended, he started to look for new ways to combine his photography work with his activism.

Saunders’ favourite piece for the Museum of Making is a depiction of Sikh pilots and Royal Air Force crew who fought together in the second world war

“I had the idea after reading a book by a feminist historian called Sheila Rowbotham who wrote a wonderful book called Hidden from History,” Saunders says. The book explores how class and sex, work and the family, personal life and social pressures have shaped women’s struggles for equality.

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Inspired by the book, Saunders created Hidden, which began with the story of William Cuffay and the London Chartists. The 1832 Reform Act had extended the vote to more men with property but the working class still did not have a vote. A campaign called for change and the men and women involved became known as the Chartists, the first mass working class movement in Britain. The large-scale image Saunders created for Hidden shows a meeting of the London Chartists in Whitechapel, in 1842, with Cuffay, the son of a slave and the president of the London Chartists.

Saunders followed the Cuffay project with other photo reimaginings including Mary Wollstonecraft and the dissenters of Newington Green in 1794; leveller women in the English revolution in 1647; and Wat Tyler and the peasants’ revolt in 1381.

Moments in time

This led to Saunders creating the three photographic tableaux for Derby’s Museum of Making. The subjects are The Orrery, which takes as its starting point Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1766 painting A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery; another piece that brings together Sikh pilots and Royal Air Force crew who fought together in the Allied forces and is linked to Rolls-Royce Merlin engines being developed in Derby to power Spitfires; and The Lockout, which focuses on the 1833-1834 disputes at Derby’s silk mills after the dismissal of a worker. This was Britain’s first major industrial dispute and is still seen as significant by many in Derby.

Like all the other Hidden projects, the works for Derby were created by a huge number of volunteers. These include the many performers who appear in the photos, as well as all those who provided behind-the-scenes technical support.

“I get lots of friends to help with the projects and Derby was exactly the same,” says Saunders. “We are using regular folks and it is the spirit of those volunteers that is at the heart of the whole thing.”

The Lockout recreates the 1833-1834 dispute at Derby’s silk mills, Britain’s first major industrial dispute. For the first time, Saunders himself appears in his art – he is the man with the clenched fist behind the newspaper in the front left

For the first time, Saunders appears in one of the pictures – he is holding a newspaper in The Lockout. But his favourite from Derby is the Spitfire image.

“I know that lots of people from the colonies were in both the first world war and the second world war, but that is not in popular history, he says. “When I read that there was actually a group of fully qualified Sikh pilots who were in the Royal Indian Airforce who came over and then retrained for Spitfires and Hurricanes, I thought this is it, as it tallied with my anti-racism.”

Saunders says Hidden is really popular with the public and he is keen to set up a foundation so that others can get involved. He feels that the concept would work well with other artforms – literature, dance, theatre and music might all provide ways for Hidden to reach new audiences.

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