Issue Archive, Long Read

Laura Pannack documents the youth of a neglected scrubland

Jack on the Sheepwash. © Laura Pannack.

Nestled between two estates on the edge of Tipton is an area known locally as The Cracker. It was here that Laura Pannack discovered a tight-knit community of youths and set about exploring the characters, friendships and traditions that, “for me, should not be lost or ignored”.

This article was published in issue #7888 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

“I was visiting in the summer, and the harsh, yellow grass had been burnt to a crisp by all the fires that the kids had set,” says Laura Pannack, describing the pivotal moment while out on a recce that she knew she’d found her subject.

It is a place known locally as The Cracker, a ‘green’ space stretching between two housing estates in the Black Country, and the central focus of Pannack’s newest project. Commissioned by Multistory, an arts organisation which supports artist collaborators in making work about Sandwell & Dudley in the West Midlands, The Cracker is an exploration of the lives of a small group of kids and teenagers who meet and socialise on that very stretch of grass set between two estates in Tipton, nicknamed Tibby and The Lost City.

“That’s so poetic!” Pannack enthuses. “Where’s The Lost City? Why is it called The Lost City?’ [I found out that] it had actually been named The Lost City by the residents, because they felt forgotten, they felt lost.” The language itself seems to have created a kind of mythology around the place that existed before Pannack’s involvement, as though the photographer has stumbled, not onto scrubland in Tipton, but into a Peter Pan world of adventures and Lost Boys. “It was just this vast wasteland,” Pannack explains of the place and its cast of characters, who she spent time with over the course of a year, on too many trips to count. “I wanted to make work that took you there.”

Pannack is known for her work documenting youth, and especially her dedication to embedding herself within communities. The Cracker is no exception, and the images are intimate enough to feel as though you are witnessing a truth about the texture of these lives, getting a real sense of the way the out-of-school hours drag.

Josh with his snakes. © Laura Pannack.

The palette is green and sand, sky and brickwork, the sides of houses and the grass thin on the ground. Kids play off one another like pinballs, checking their phones or sucking on vapes. Following in the tradition of social documentarians such as Shirley Baker, Chris Killip and Ken Grant, the images are dynamic and charged, full of motion and keyed up with the frenetic, delicate energy of adolescent relationships.

One aspect that the project captures most powerfully is the suspension of Pannack’s subjects between childhood and adulthood, reaching towards one while still joined to the other. In one image, a young couple stand together, easy in one another’s company, the boy smoking. Later, they’re kissing in the grass. So far, so grown-up – until on closer inspection you notice that the girl’s T-shirt is an image of Disney’s Minions. In another photograph, a young boy grasps a cigarette in one hand and a lollipop in the other.

This kind of split attention is not uncommon: in fact, the kids on The Cracker seem to be in constant motion: smoking, vaping, texting, eating. I wonder about what that perennial self-stimulation represents, and whether it speaks to a wish for distraction or entertainment; whether it’s provoked by boredom, by a short attention span, or perhaps by a lack of opportunity.

Pannack has a different take: that the busyness was something she instrumentalised for the sake of the work, each activity allowing her access and giving her a way into the community, and a way of holding her subjects’ interest. “Just rocking up and hanging out with young people isn’t enough. You need to offer them an activity or something that’s out of their routine, or they’re just not going to show up,” she explains. She brought nail kits when she saw some of them painting their nails on one occasion; for Halloween, she brought sparklers.

Jack with lollipop. © Laura Pannack.

“It was a different way of working,” she says. “Usually I’m quite isolated with somebody, it’s still, it’s quiet; whereas I wanted these images to be more dynamic and challenging.” In terms of her own intentions for the project, the dynamism was functional as well as communicating something about the youth: it was new creative ground for Pannack: “Maybe I was looking for that busyness.”

Pannack’s insistence on the importance of photography as craft is striking. Each project is a means of experimentation and practice, to improve her work and sharpen her tools. “It’s like learning an instrument, isn’t it? You’re never going to get to that point where you’re done,” she suggests. The photographs are each examples of the gradual refining and honing of a skill, rather than a polished end product.

Of The Cracker, she says that her favourite images are those that were hardest won, or most complicated to choreograph. The sparklers, for example, posed various challenges. Best used in darkness or low light, requiring a slow shutter speed and lasting only a short while before they burn out; capturing the image required her to dance and weave around the bodies and fizzing light of the sparklers, suspending it within the same frame.

“I haven’t really shot a lot at night, and I want to push myself, so a lot of the images that made the edit were actually shot in almost darkness.” It’s a methodology that is predicated on high risk. She doesn’t reserve old tricks for a particular subject, or rely on her strengths, but rather uses each opportunity to push ahead. It speaks to a relentless boldness, one which is belied by Pannack’s own view of herself. “I have always vented my insecurities, both about my identity and my work,” she explains. “I’ll never be happy, or content, or feel like I’m working hard enough or doing enough.”

Callum on his bike. © Laura Pannack.

The self-criticism that spurs her onward was an emotional touchstone for The Cracker itself. Finding herself away from her home and attempting to ingratiate herself with a group that was, at times, openly hostile, was discomfiting. Pannack recalls walking towards a group of young guys, only to be told that they’d thought she might be working undercover for the police, and they’d planned to beat her up.

“I don’t think I ever felt like I fitted in,” she says. “I think I always felt like I was an annoyance. I was an outsider.” She was often accused of working with the police or social services, and often let down by those whom she had arranged to meet and photograph. Many hours stretched out on the scrubland, waiting for people to show up, only to be bailed on last minute.

“I always feared the worst, like: these people don’t want to hang out with me. And there were genuine moments where I was embarrassed,” Pannack explains. “It sent me back to being the sad kid at school.” That said, moments of rejection would alternate with glimpses of camaraderie and inclusion. “I remember I was walking past a field on my phone, and I just heard this kid going, ‘Y’alright, mush?’” One of the boys caught her eye and ran towards her, roaring. “It was those kinds of authentic moments that kept me motivated, and kept me believing that, actually, they were enjoying this. Because I couldn’t do it if the kids didn’t enjoy it.”

The photographs don’t hide the fact that they are depicting a deprived area in exploring the lives of kids from council estates; in fact, authenticity in documenting these areas is an important aspect of Multistory’s mission.

“We are based in an area that has been overlooked, where people feel left behind, and where austerity closes down opportunity and hope,” says Emma Chetcuti, the organisation’s director. “Being able to share your story and collaborate with an artist to tell that story in a powerful and impactful way, in an exhibition, book or film, is empowering and life-affirming.” Mutual respect between subject and artist are essential to Multistory’s projects, “so that the community recognise themselves in the work and feel acknowledged”, Chetcuti adds.

Avi and his sister. © Laura Pannack.

Like Multistory, Pannack clearly feels a responsibility towards her subjects in her wish to depict them truthfully, and with openness. “I’m forming a dynamic,” she explains. “Whenever I was shooting or I was hanging out with them, there’s no judgement. I’m not giving them a voice, and I’m not speaking for them; I’m just taking pictures.”

At the end of the project, the photographs were collected in a magazine alongside Pannack’s diary entries, and set alongside photographs and writing from the kids themselves, created during workshops. The magazine is, in this way, a collaboration, situating Pannack’s voice alongside theirs; both subjects and photographer have come together to create a portrait of this particular place at this particular time.

“I really liked them. I think they’re great kids,” she tells me. “They were quite respectful, they were quite curious.” Her keenness to describe these warm experiences is understandable given the impression of toughness created by some of the images. It’s not so much that the kids are smoking, but the worldly way they hold their cigarettes; the way a young boy leans over his bike handlebars with a grubby face and a grim look in his eye.

In one scene, a group of kids and teenagers are holding party balloons, while the littlest one is blowing up a condom. Pannack’s ability to access and record moments such as these, though, speaks to the strength of the relationships with her subjects in the first place; the fact that she was not permanently connected with an organisation allowed her to gain an uncommon level of trust. “Because I’m not in a position of authority, I’m not
a threat,” she notes. “I genuinely got along with them.”

At the end of the project, Multistory put on a “Fun Day at the Tibby”, with a barbecue, a football match, games, and a screening of the images, as well as distributing the magazines. “We loved seeing Charlie’s face light up as she opened the zine and realised her piece of writing had been selected, and then showed all her friends,” describes Becky Sexton, the project manager from Multistory who produced the project. For many attendees, this would have been their first experience interacting or collaborating with an artist. The project, in its rawness of approach at the same time as in its faithful depiction of the friendships on The Cracker, is a source of pride.

Meeting on The Cracker. © Laura Pannack.

“This project taught me a new way of working, which I’m really grateful for,” Pannack says. “I tend to overanalyse and overthink, and I get quite philosophical when I’m coming up with ideas for projects.” The Cracker was a break from all of that, a means of turning up to a place with no preconceived notions or expectations, approaching without judgment and exploring.

A newer work, which Pannack hopes will mirror The Cracker in some way, saw her travelling to Tasmania, photographing youth there with a similar methodology. The project with Multistory primed her for the kind of spontaneity and openness required when travelling to an unknown territory with no plans other than to look for youth to document, and she was able to shoot almost an entire new body of work in just three weeks.

“It doesn’t have to be justified before you start,” she says. “Photography is like your voice. You don’t necessarily like the sound of your voice, but it doesn’t stop you talking. I don’t necessarily like my images, but I love doing it, I love making it, and I like looking back at the images. I genuinely get excited about seeing my film.”

Her enthusiasm for the practice itself is the driving force that keeps her returning and pushing and experimenting. Then again: the act itself can be satisfying and informative, but when that process coheres and a project finds its shape at the other end, it is rewarding. Even Pannack, as self-effacing as she is, is glad that happened with The Cracker: “I think I was quite relieved.”

The Cracker by Laura Pannack is published as a zine by Multistory

Keep up-to-date with the leading voice in contemporary photography