Documentary and intervention: Deeds Not Words at The Photographers' Gallery

By Sarah Jackson | 21 August 2013

Exhibition review: Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until September 29 2013

A young boy with three fingers on his left hand pops a red balloon.
Mark Neville, Ben Bursting a Balloon (2011)© Mark Neville Courtesy of the artist
In 1998, the families of 16 children from Corby, Northamptonshire took the borough council to court for the negligent management of the local steelwork sites. The children were born between 1985 and 1998 with limb defects said to be the result of dangerous substances generated while the council reclaimed the sites.

For 18 months, photographer Mark Neville followed the Corby 16 as they battled - successfully - to indict the council for their negligence. The result of this was the production of a book comprising of a case summary, photographs and scientific studies.

Rather than being made commercially available, it was sent to all 433 local authorities in the UK and international environmental agencies to create awareness of the issues raised.

Deeds Not Words comprises of a selection of photographs taken by Mark Neville, along with copies of the book, a selection of findings from the case and a short film featuring interviews with the artist, environmentalists and the people involved with the case directly.

In all, 30 colour and black and white photographs present the community as a whole. The persistent Scottish identity of the town is represented through images of young Highland dancers for the Corby Highland Games.

One memorable image features a group of four girls in traditional dress. Three stand with the same focused and disinterested expression on their faces that a seasoned athlete might wear; the last girl however grins at the camera, her hands firmly on her hips.

The contrast between generations is also captured by the placement of an image of a crowd of young people packed together in a club next to one of an older couple dancing alone in a music hall, accompanied by two Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin impersonators.

Only a few of the 30 photographs on display feature only one individual; two of those are George Taylor and Ben Vissian, two boys involved in the court case and both born with fingers missing. They are posed identically in two triptychs as they pop a balloon held under their arms.

What Neville captures here is a community, not just the families of those affected by the environmental pollution. The various elements that could perhaps define Corby’s culture and people are intermingled.

Three or four generations ago many Scottish families moved to Northamptonshire, drawn by the promise of work at the steelworks. Now those steelworks are gone, but their legacy lives on in both the Scottish culture of the town and the lives affected by their destruction.

While the court has found in favour of the families, many of the ground-breaking legal, medical and scientific findings of the case remain unpublished.

Deeds Not Words has created an opportunity for the issues that have impacted the town so heavily – the handling of toxic waste, the reuse of poisoned land and the sadly familiar story of industrial growth and decline – to be considered by the wider public.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday, 11.30am-6pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @TPGallery‎.


More pictures:


Black and white photograph of four young girls in traditional Highland dress.
Mark Neville, Young Highland Dancers, Corby Highland Games (2011)© Mark Neville Courtesy of the artist

A young girl practices traditional Highland dancing outside in front of some tents.
Mark Neville, Corby Highland Dancers Preparing for Competition (2011)© Mark Neville Courtesy of the artist

Black and white photograph of a group of young people inside a nightclub.
Mark Neville, Rockafellas Nightclub, Princewood Court (2011)© Mark Neville Courtesy of the artist

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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