This paper examines how visual discourses of urban regeneration contribute to the gentrification process. It asks can alternative photographic strategies provide a meaningful counter narrative to combat persuasive corporate discourses on urban regeneration? The paper will explore whether these types of record can counter neo-liberal discourses that mediate the material transformation of city areas. Focusing on the gentrification of social housing in Pendleton, Salford (Greater Manchester) the presentation debates the role of imagery in fostering perceptions about urban change by evaluating fieldwork undertaken by the authors in the site since 2004.
Poverty makes certain global populations vulnerable to displacement by development. In many parts of the world land and homes are appropriated or stolen by governments, corporations or private developers and transformed into lucrative real estate (Harvey, 1989; Nixon, 2011). In this process known as accumulation by dispossession large profits are accumulated in the process of dispossessing people of their land, rights and homes. This paper examines how visual renderings commissioned by developers help legitimate these capital investment strategies. It will examine how corporate imagery works to commodify space by providing a modernizing ‘future gaze’ (Jones, 2013). Designed to attract mobile investment capital (Jansson and Lagerkvist, 2009) they portray change as embedded in ‘socially resonant forms’ (Jessop, 2004).
Central to the paper, is an interrogation of contemporary ideas on the photographic representation of urban space. The research questions photography’s ability to make legible the key drivers of today’s emergent terrains and their connections to networks of power (Sassen, 2011, p.36). Historical precedents will also be discussed. Photographers as far back as Charles Marville in Paris of the 1860’s have documented urban reconstruction (Kennel, 2013). Employed by those undertaking the demolition, these photographic practices frequently suppress certain narratives of the unbuilding process, disguising the impact on inhabitants or the economics driving the reconstruction schemes (James, 2004). Reformist documentary has also played its part in justifying large-scale urban reconstruction. State or municipal authorities in the UK have commissioned the work of photographers to help legitimate reconstructing marginal areas, a process that often involved displacing existing communities (Rose, 1997; Blaikie, 2006). Both position the existing urban terrain within a narrative of decline and redemption through extensive reconstruction.
Contrary to such depictions of urban change the paper will examine our own longitudinal documentation of the Pendleton area of Salford. Salford like many provincial English city councils, has sought help with maintenance and reinvestment in its publicly owned housing stock through a PFI scheme. Salford’s scheme will see 1,250 social housing properties renovated but will also require large-scale clearance of its existing stock to enable 1,600 new properties to be built most of which will be for private sale. Our own work has recorded the ten-year period of disinvestment, ruination, displacement and more recently gentrification in the area.
The paper will question whether such a longitudinal project can be utilized as a political tool to highlight the wider processes involved in such regimes of disinvestment and accumulation (Smith, Caris and Wyly, 2001). Through the combination of photography and site writing can certain economic and political processes make legible cause and effect? To do this the paper will place the work in relation to other urban photographers of uneven development such as Camilo Jose Vergara (1997) and Sze Tsung Leong (2006). It will question whether this use of photography can effectively provide a counter narrative to the neo-liberal aims hidden in the gentrification process. Can we develop this critical photography into a practice that moves beyond generalisations and helps create a ‘radical documentary’ (Rosler, 2004b, p. 196)?