Interview with Janis Austin
"We ran classes for all sorts of groups, the unemployed, women’s groups and took photography into schools etc. It was about bringing photography to the masses. (How different it all is now)."
"It really started as a group of ‘amateur’, local, leftie, photography enthusiasts who wanted to do good. We were not out there to make buckets of money... I would like to compare us to Magnum on a much smaller scale."
When did you join the Photo Co-op and why? What was your role?
I had left art college about a year previously having done photography at diploma level (few colleges did degrees in those days). I was looking for work locally as a press photographer or photojournalist. I was going through my very political phase, socialist, feminist etc. I used to read The Pavement, a local left wing paper, and noticed that the photographs were supplied by The Photo Co-op, so I got in touch with the editor and he put me in touch with Gina Glover. This was in the summer of 1981, I think. Gina invited me to a meeting at her house and that was it. I met Bridget Bishop (Corry Bevington), Crispin Hughes, Martin Lipton, Geof Rayner, Vicky White, Sarah Saunders, Sarah Wyld and Sarah Bishop of course.
What was the Photo Co-op like when you joined?
It was a lovely, friendly group. Very political. Very left wing. I felt slightly out of my depth being only 23 and new to London at the time. The office was in Gina’s front room and the picture library was one drawer in a filing cabinet. They photographed local events such as the closure of the South London Women’s Hospital and all the local GLC groups. I loved it! It was exactly what I was hoping to do. The money wasn’t really that important. We often did jobs just at material costs to help local groups out.
What was the first major project you worked on?
I don’t remember the first major project really. Education, health, housing & homelessness, transport were major issues we covered. I remember photographing all the GLC funded groups, which was fun. Women’s groups, crèches, theatre groups, arts projects. I loved meeting all the local left-wing people and the feeling that we were doing something worthwhile. While my college friends were into fashion and still life I was out on the streets with the people who counted.
What were some of the most important projects you worked on for you?
Crispin and I worked on two tape slide presentations about homelessness which involved trips to Birmingham. That was an eye opener. Unfortunately the Housing Association put us in a temperance hotel so no alcohol was consumed on that trip. The music was The Communards, ‘Small Town Boy’, I remember.
There was all the work on the Miners Strike as well. I remember photographing a lot of demonstrations and marches such as the protests to save the GLC. Got a good pic of Arthur Scargill and Neil Kinnock.
I also did a lot of work for the Family Planning Association and was at their AGM when the resignation of Margaret Thatcher was announced. That must have been 1990 as I was pregnant at the time.
One of my main clients was the Kids Club Network and I spent loads of time photographing after school clubs, holiday play schemes and adventure playgrounds. That was fun!
And I did a huge exhibition with Chris Boot at the Kensington Town Hall on HIV/AIDS.
One of my last press jobs was the Clapham Junction train disaster in 1988. I was one of the first photographers on the scene as I was around the corner at our offices in Webbs Road. It was horrendous. Bodies and body parts everywhere and press photographers pushing to get the gory picture. It was then I decided that I would never do a press job again. I decided that I did not want to be associated with those heartless animals called press photographers. I wanted to put my camera down and help. I could never be so voyeuristic again.
How long did you stay? Were you there when it changed into Photo fusion?
I was there until I moved to Norfolk in 2000. I wasn’t such an active photographer then as I got arthritis in 1991 after the birth of my son and I couldn’t lug my camera gear around anymore. I ended up running the picture library for years and doing more leaflet and exhibition design. The Promotions Service, I think we called it. I also did loads of teaching. I set up the City & Guilds classes at Photofusion and taught at Lambeth and Croydon colleges.
I was definitely there when we moved to Brixton, in fact my husband built the darkrooms in Electric Lane. I remember Webbs Road as well, (my husband built the darkroom there as well) and you must give Luis Bustamante, our first education worker, a mention.
What was special about the Photo Co-op? Why was the Co-op so important?
It really started as a group of ‘amateur’, local, leftie, photography enthusiasts who wanted to do good. We were not out there to make buckets of money. The other similar groups were Format women’s photography group, Network, Monochrome and, I would like to compare us to Magnum on a much smaller scale.
Getting the GLC funding was fantastic! It meant that we could start up the education side, employ Luis Bustamante (Education) and Chris Boot as an administrator. Chris Boot was a real find and it was him that really pushed us on from a small, laid back group to a major national organisation.
We ran classes for all sorts of groups, the unemployed, women’s groups and took photography into schools etc. It was about bringing photography to the masses. (How different it all is now).
It was a very special, close knit group and somehow, it worked.
Do you remember what was happening in society at the time?
It was a very politically active and hard time. Margaret Thather, miners strike, privatisation, closure of local hospitals, HIV/AIDS, The City Crash, homeleness and unemployment was huge, nuclear missiles, CND, Greenham Common and the demise of the GLC.
The GLC was known for introducing Equal Opportunities. People said that you could only get a job if you were a black lesbian with one leg. It was kind of extreme at the time but the point was made. One of my jobs was to photograph women on building sites, which was unheard of until then. Sadly I think we are reverting back to a degree. Women have never really got the equal opportunities we feminists fought for.
Were you a professional or amateur photographer when you started?
What did you go on to do?
When I joined the Photo co-op I think I was the only person actually qualified as a photographer (apart from Bridget Bishop). Everybody else went on to do their degrees later. Altogether I was with them in one way or another for 19 years. I felt blessed. It wasn’t until I moved to Norfolk at the age of 42 that I had to go through a job interview. I was useless. I resigned from photography then and moved into secondary education. I ran the odd photography class locally until recently but now the only photographs I take are holiday snaps. They were good days but when everything when digital I lost heart. Memories... I did publish a book about a local 19th century photographer in 2011 however.
'I loved meeting all the left wing local people and the feeling that we were doing something worthwhile. While my college friends were into fashion and still life I was out on the streets with the people who counted.'