credit Jeevan Farthing

Simon Murphy’s Govanhill: a bold photographic portrait

By Jeevan Farthing

Simon Murphy’s new exhibition Govanhill captures a transient snapshot of the Glasgow Southside area.

Framed on the wall of Street Level Photoworks is a photograph of a young girl, she is around 11 or 12 years old. School uniform on, cigarette in hand, head cocked to the side, she poses, defiantly, outside the entrance to one of the Southside’s tightly packed tenement flats. I want to know her name.

She’s just one of hundreds of Glaswegians – more specifically, inhabitants of the Govanhill area – who have been captured as part of Simon Murphy’s latest photography exhibition. For some reason I’m drawn to her, more than the older man with his eyes shut, donning a bowl haircut and wearing a Star of David necklace, or the thoughtful, composed boy holding a toy gun at the camera. In theory, they make for just as captivating subjects.

To what extent each visitor connects (or doesn’t) with the individual people photographed depends a little on their innate idiosyncrasies, and our own predispositions and life experiences. But how Murphy chooses to portray them, how he employs his creative direction, is arguably more significant. He is an artist, sure, but also a sociologist, judiciously selecting his participants, who he wants to go up and chat to and who he chooses to let go. He has a real power, the ability to transform someone’s demeanour through how he tells them to stand, where he tells them to look.

Photography exhibitions are inherently contrived – Murphy’s subjects are afforded the dignity of being placed next to each other, in individual frames, when in reality, many will live on top of each other, in overcrowded, under-regulated rented flats. Some will be acquainted – as friends, family, enemies, lovers and community members – others will live a life of solitude. Murphy’s representation of Govanhill can never entirely do justice to its diverse, socio-economic “melting pot” of cultures, as he himself calls it.

This isn’t to take away from the hours and hours he spent wandering its streets, cultivating an impressively eclectic collection of multi-faceted people, from butchers and barbers to builders and bus drivers, children heading to mosque in traditional Muslim dress, tired Roma mothers wearing traditional beads or pairs of goths with intersecting chains. Lots of Murphy’s subjects are old, lots are young. A balding man, suited and booted, eats his cooked breakfast on an outside table at a greasy spoon – he seems hardened, and intimidates. The young girl with a cat round her neck endears, unaware, probably, of the racist conspiracy theories which blight the place she can call her home. Govanhill’s demographic extremities are a reflection of the transience of its population, juxtaposed by the stillness of their depiction here in portrait form, and the timelessness of black-and-white. A high proportion of them are former asylum seekers, who want a better life – for some, perhaps, better still than Govanhill.

Subtly, Murphy addresses the political choices which have rendered Govanhill more socio-economically deprived than surrounding areas, and its residents deliberately marginalised. One of the photographs focuses on the pavement in Queen’s Park – TORIES OUT, the graffiti says. It is notable that Govanhill’s constituency MSP is Nicola Sturgeon who, as First Minister, gave refugees the right to vote in Scottish Parliament elections. A billboard berates the 60,000 (at the time) recorded deaths from Covid-19 – apt, since ethnic minority populations, and those in insecure housing, were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and still face substantial health inequalities.

Murphy’s subjects are not just rendered transient by social structures, but, like all of us, are humans, undergoing constant interpersonal and occupational development. The rebellious, cigarette-laden teenager may, minutes after being photographed, transform into a conformist daughter. The halal butcher wearing his mesh gloves might be a father, he might not. Really we know hardly anything about these people, only a snapshot, the result of their chance encounter with Simon Murphy, much more interested in them than most people would be.

Is it wrong, voyeuristic, even, to feel a fascination with the people he has introduced me to, when I am only a spectator to their predicament? The description of the exhibition mentions a desire to “champion” its residents – well-intentioned, no doubt – but dubious when a boy no older than five or six is captured alone, heaving shopping bags back to his home. Would it be fair to impose on him qualities of resilience and determination, when his expression is one of forlorn and fatigue? How many of these children will remain in Govanhill when they grow older? If they don’t, will they look back fondly at their time there, or will they want to forget about it? If so, they may feel that these photographs deny them the opportunity to do so, perhaps even serving as a reminder of further trauma not captured by Murphy’s camera.

Nevertheless, it is because this exhibition poses inherent ethical and moral challenges that Murphy should be commended for being bold and brave enough to deliver it so delicately and diligently. Govanhill deserves to be documented; it is the epicentre of the decades of immigration which have profoundly shaped Glasgow as a city. In 10, 20 years time, going out onto Victoria Road or Alison Street will no doubt reveal a substantially different population, who will make their own, distinct contribution to Govanhill itself, and Glasgow generally. Then, I suppose, someone will have to go out with a camera and do all this again.

Govanhill is on until 27 January 2024 at Street Level Photoworks, and is free to enter.


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