Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen - Byker
”It is Ms. Konttinen’s personal dialogue with the people of Byker, her own entry into the community and recordings of its voices that gives the book a particular punch” – Newcastle Journal
In 1969 when Sirkka Liisa Konttinen came to Byker looking for a home she was not only an outsider but a foreigner too. In many ways it was her eccentricity, her otherness which enabled Byker people to take her to their collective bosom. ”One way or another I had grown to be part of my street and the community. It had been my first own home and a real home for me. As my neighbour Nancy points out proudly: ‘When she first came into our street, she couldn’t tell ‘hello’ from ‘tarra’ and now she speaks Finnish with a Geordie accent’.” – Sirkka Liisa Konttinen
Her accent allowed her to avoid the class labelling which goes along with speech in Britain and once she’d been forgiven for having no nets up and not scrubbing her doorstep she was treated with good humour and generosity. The need for a place to live came before the photographic project and this tells in the work which spans all sections of the community and zings with freshness and surprise.
”The initial response of Byker people to me was a mixture of friendliness and suspicion. They couldn’t believe I would take pictures of the place just because I liked it, and the fact that I didn’t charge for the portraits baffled them. They thought either I was a Social Security snoop or that something was wrong with me” – Sirkka Liisa Konttinen
In a rent-free shop Sirkka set up a Free Portrait Studio, offering her skills alongside the traditional trades like the cobbler and barber. Although it was eventually raided and closed down it helped to turn the tide by clarifying for the people of Byker just what she was up to. Soon her pictures started appearing in her photographs of people’s homes. Individual creative interiors set against external uniformity, doorstep pride, the important mantelpiece, the street chattering.
Byker was suffering from extensive neglect when Sirkka arrived, its decline mirrored by the slow dismantling of engineering works and shipyards. Entranced by the directness of the people, by the ability to survive harsh conditions and sweeping changes with dignity and humour, she set about recording in words and images the place and its people.
All in all Sirkka spent over a decade documenting Byker as it fell under the redeveloper’s hammer. The planner’s dream, the people’s nightmare. Like much of the redevelopments of the sixties and seventies it was the destruction not only of homes but of working class culture and close relationships which were never re-established in the schemes that replaced the so-called slums. At the end of the carnage part of the spirit of the place had gone and less than one fifth of the original inhabitants remained.
Throughout the book the people of Byker speak for themselves, in anecdotes, reminiscences, fragments of conversations often illustrating the complexity of human relationships. The text isn’t there to fill the gaps, it’s an essential part of the Byker story. In her poetic, intimate introduction to the book Sirkka Liisa Konttinen draws the reader into what was a very personal experience which nevertheless makes broad political statements about the nature of the society we live in.
”A wisdom of the eye and the heart that makes this collection unforgettable” – New Society
Paperback – 128 pages (1988)
Dufour Editions; ISBN: 0906427908