How we can use our culture to find common ground in divided times

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture in divided times, but we must find the common ground, and culture could hold the key, says Abigail Scott Paul on the eve of a new photographic exhibition.

Since the 2019 Election, there has been a lot of talk about ‘culture wars’. Fuelled by the polarisation of the political tribes, as well as the rise of ‘identity politics’, it can feel like there is more that divides us, than unites us.

At the turn of this new decade, leaders from the world of civil society, business, faith and even sport called for a ‘decade of reconnection’. Sign me up! Campaigners for social change must resist the urge to retreat into their corners and factions. Instead, we must look outwards, listen to people outside our echo chambers and engage with how the public think and feel about issues. The most inspiring current example of this is Ed Balls’ brilliant series Travels in Euroland on BBC2. In an interview in the Saturday Times he said,

We are seeing a rise of right-wing populism in Europe, but many of the people who vote for these parties aren’t racists or extremists. Many of them are ordinary, nice people and if you spoke with them, you could find something to identify with. What filming Travels in Euroland has shown me is that voters are making choices in elections that they don’t necessarily want to make, because they feel they are not being listened to or they are being dismissed.
Ed Balls

A more effective conversation

The good news for those working to build public support for action on poverty is that we have the tools to do this: we just need to get to work! Through our framing research, we know how to have a more effective conversation about poverty with the public: we need to appeal to people’s sense of compassion and justice, values the British public do hold dear.

But we are also going to have to get creative about how we do this. We can’t just tell people what to feel. What better way to halt the culture wars, than by using culture itself? Culture can be a bridge to understanding between factions, often when language fails. In February we will be attempting our first public-facing photographic exhibition Picture Britain: Our People Our Poverty.

Images matter: the photos and visual stories that are used in the mainstream are powerful tools that can help or hinder our understanding of the world. Unfortunately many of the visual images used in the news or media associated with poverty reinforce a perception of poverty that feels inauthentic and stigmatising to those people and communities the images are meant to represent. See ATD Fourth World’s research exploring this.

Reframing the picture of poverty

We wanted to reframe the picture of people caught in the riptide of poverty. We have worked with the photographer Jillian Edelstein and people from communities up and down the country to create a stunning series of photographs that shows the strength, resilience and hope of people who are working hard to unlock opportunities for themselves and others trapped in poverty.

Jillian also came up with an ingenious way of finding our common ground: she asked participants one simple question: “What is the one thing you could not live without?” The answers reveal universal values and hopes and dreams that all of us can identify with: love, hope and faith are among some of the answers.

Picture Britain: Our People Our Poverty is our attempt to use culture to find the common ground on the issue of poverty in the UK and one, we hope, that can start to build understanding and connection with more people, so that we can find a solution to this injustice.

Picture Britain: Our People, Our Poverty will open at London’s Borough Market on 20 February and will run to 8 March 2020. It will tour through the UK after that.