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Questioning Brexit through Arts

Can Brexit be photographed? Six photographic projects raising critical questions about Britain’s exit from the European Union (2016-2020)

Le Brexit dans le viseur : le point de vue des photographes sur la sortie du Royaume Uni de l'Union Européenne
Mathilde Bertrand


À travers une sélection de différents projets photographiques produits entre 2016 et 2020, cet article s’intéresse à la façon dont des photographes britanniques ou résidents au Royaume-Uni se sont emparés de la question de la sortie du Royaume-Uni de l’Union Européenne. Chacun des six projets met en lumière et problématise différents enjeux sociaux, économiques et idéologiques soulevés par le Brexit, à différents moments de ce processus politique amorcé en 2016. Les questions d’engagement politique des artistes, du rôle des médias et des usages de la communication politique mise en œuvre lors de cette période troublée, le sort des résidents européens, ou encore la question de l’invisibilisation des régions les plus affectées par la pauvreté et les politiques d’austérité, sont autant de dimensions abordées par les projets photographiques qui composent le corpus étudié. La mise en relation de ces différentes réponses photographiques fait apparaître des échos et des correspondances qui contribuent à dresser le portrait d’un Royaume-Uni divisé tout en réaffirmant avec force les valeurs d’inclusion, de tolérance et de diversité malmenées au cours de cette période difficile.

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Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

Brexit, Photographie, Représentation, Art, Politique

Index by keywords:

Brexit, Photography, Representation, Art, Politics
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Texte intégral

1Britain’s exit from the European Union is a historic political upheaval, which opens a new phase in the history of the UK and profoundly transforms its relationship to continental Europe and its position in the world. From the moment when a referendum on the issue became an electoral promise of the Conservative Party in 2015 until the official separation on 31st January 2020, the issue of what came to be known as “Brexit” has dominated British political life, and will continue to do so in the years to come. The term “Brexit”, terse and pithy, effectively imposed itself in public discourse, yet seemed to refer to different things at different times and to different people. It could refer to the collective decision resulting from the referendum on 23rd June 2016 when 51.9% of the British population voted to Leave the European Union, to the projected outcome of a political process of separation, but also to the whole political sequence of negotiations that followed the triggering of Article 50 for over three years and a half, or “Brexit day”, the official exit date at the end of January 2020. For “Leavers”, Brexit meant the democratic expression of a decision that should be respected above all other considerations and the promise of a reclaimed national sovereignty and controlled frontiers, while for “Remainers”, Brexit was a catastrophic resolution mired by misleading political untruths and manipulations, the sign of a rising xenophobia and the ascendency of far-right views in the country, and a process to avert by calling for a second referendum.

  • 1 See Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly, “Introduction: Brexit and the Future of the British Model of Democ (...)

2Deep social and territorial divisions have been exposed in a crude light and the cleavage between Leavers and Remainers revealed new lines of fracture, disrupting the traditional party lines.1 After the referendum, more questions and uncertainties arose than clarifications were given. A succession of destabilising events took place, starting with the resignation of David Cameron, several rejections of Theresa May’s withdrawal bill in Parliament, two extensions to the deadline, May’s resignation, a prorogation of Parliament by Boris Johnson later found unanimously illegal by the Supreme Court, and new General Elections in December 2019 returning a landslide victory to Boris Johnson. At different moments, it did look as if Brexit might be averted and many Remainers entertained that hope. British society comes out of this traumatic political phase profoundly shaken and divided, facing the risk of further disunion as the majority Scottish National Party demands a second independence referendum for Scotland while the idea of a reunited Ireland is gaining ground.

3In this whole political phase between 2016 and early 2020, artists have not stood by the wayside and watched. To the professional photographers whose work is studied here, all of them supporters of Remain, Brexit was the starting point of new work and new approaches, as each of them felt compelled to respond to a political outcome that as citizens and creative professionals they did not wish to see happening. Politically, the position of these photographers reflects sociological patterns whereby a large majority (96%) of middle-class, urban, young creative professionals with higher education levels voted against Brexit, according to a survey by the Creative Industries Federation. At the time of producing their work, a lot of uncertainties, hopes and frustrations surrounded the issue. Although the projects examined here intervened at different stages of this political moment, and were motivated by diverse aims and concerns, they all revolved around the central worry about what Brexit meant in terms of the ideological evolution of the UK and for its future. In various ways, they responded to what this political event revealed about British society, its anxieties and the persistence of national myths, about the depth of social inequalities and the feelings of disenfranchisement and relegation aggravated by years of austerity, and about new political fault lines or the role of mainstream media. These projects were undertaken by both British and non-British photographers who for most of them live and work in the UK. One of them, already settled in France, made the choice of taking up the French nationality as a consequence of Brexit. The projects presented here all contribute to a critique of the Leave argument and a condemnation of the political consequences of Brexit for the photographers’ own artistic, cosmopolitan communities, and for the population of the country. The article explores the way these different photographers and artists addressed Brexit and its consequences in their artistic practice, and contributed to producing critical, politically-involved, personal and collective perspectives on British society at this historical juncture. The different contexts in which the artworks were circulated and received – in public spaces, in newspapers, on social media, in artistic events – invited viewers to participate in a collective questioning of what Brexit meant for themselves, their communities and the whole country.

4We contend that, for the photographers presented in this article, working on the question of the social, political and cultural consequences of Brexit marked a turn in their practice: towards more direct forms of political engagement, towards aesthetic approaches and uses of public space that were novel for them, towards a reconnection with the forgotten heartlands of the country, in need of greater recognition and visibility.

Wolfgang Tillmans and the Anti-Brexit Campaign

5For Wolfgang Tillmans, the prospect of the referendum made him realise the necessity of taking a clear political stance in his work and challenge attitudes of indifference to the vote.

  • 2 Pauline Schnapper, “David Cameron et la campagne du ‘Remain’”, Revue Française de Civilisation Brit (...)

6Between April and June 2016, the campaign for the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union opposed two official camps: Vote Leave, founded by Dominic Cummings and gathering prominent Conservative eurosceptics as well as some Labour MPs, against Britain Stronger In Europe, a motley gathering of cross-party pro-European Union supporters.2 The “Stronger In” campaign, bringing together members from the Labour, Lib-Dems, Conservative and Green Parties and the TUC, was marred by divisions whereas the self-confident and vocal Vote Leave camp, whose anti-Establishment message was given a lot of resonance in the media, pictured the Remain camp as an out-of-touch social and political elite which could only offer a defensive “Project Fear”. The Stronger In campaign itself seemed to lack lustre, in comparison with the boisterous antics of some prominent Vote Leave campaigners, such as Boris Johnson.

7At once disillusioned with the Stronger In campaign which he considered “dull”3 and uninspiring, appalled by the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union and deeply concerned about the rise of populism, xenophobia and nationalism across Europe, photographer Wolgang Tillmans decided to launch his own initiative in support of the Remain vote. Tillmans is a German photographer who made London his home years ago. In 2000, his work was distinguished by the prestigious Turner Prize, the first one delivered to a non-British artist and to photographic work. Tillmans’s œuvre is characterized by the use of large-scale photographic images, which can be portraits, landscapes, still lives, street scenes or atmospheric images verging on abstraction. He is openly committed to environmental issues as well as LGBT rights.

  • 4 “I want to get involved and actively campaign. In particular, I want to work towards maximizing tur (...)
  • 5 For example, claims by the Vote Leave campaign that the British contribution to the EU budget amoun (...)
  • 6 Wolfgang Tillmans, 24th June 2016, <, accessed on 25 April 2021. (...)

8The notion that Britain’s place in the European Union could be suddenly open to question was something that personally shocked him and jolted him into making more directly politically-engaged work. It made him realise the urgency of actively campaigning to make the point that the core values of peace, workers’, women’s, gay people’s rights and environmental protection defended by the European Union, and therefore by the UK as part of the European Union, were under attack and ran the risk of being undermined if the UK left that framework.4 Distressed by the amount of lies, distortions and false promises flaunted by the Vote Leave camp,5 the anti-Brexit posters that he designed aimed at exposing falsehoods and clearly state what leaving the European Union implied: a surrender to populism and xenophobia and a weakening of democratic defences in the context of the global rise of authoritarian far-right forces set against the liberal ideals of the European Union.6

  • 7 “Between Bridges is a foundation (est. 2017) for the advancement of democracy, international unders (...)

9From his studios in London and Berlin and with his associates of the Between Bridges Foundation,7 he set about working on the production of twenty-five large scale posters whose pro-European text explicitly encourages voters to choose Remain. The posters read messages such as “No man is an island. No country by itself. Say you’re in if you’re in” (Fig. 1 Wolfgang Tillmans, Anti-Brexit Poster, April 2016.), “What is lost is lost forever”, or “This vote is not about bureaucracy. Not about things that don’t work well, that are still flawed. This vote is about our core values, about saying yes or no to democracy, human rights and solidarity. Pick your side.” The text and designs on A1 size images are kept deliberately simple: the messages in bold letters are delineated on backdrops that are either blank or made of a photographic image. They were designed to directly call out to the viewers’ attention in public spaces, at campaign stalls or online. Presented together as they were for instance in Somerset House in May 2016 as part of Photo London, the annual photography fair gathering artists, galleries, dealers and members of the public in possession of a ticket, these arresting images could at first sight be mistaken for advertisements. Yet their very visible message in the middle of the piazza turned the whole installation into a political intervention, reminding visitors of the urgency of a matter which should not be ignored (Fig. 2 Anti Brexit Campaign, Wolfgang Tillmans at Photo London, May 2016). In this specific instance, the situation created by the central presence of the posters at Photo London made demands on its cosmopolitan, educated and privileged audience with respect to a future collective decision: it urged spectators to take into consideration the consequences that Britain’s exit from the European Union would mean for the international community of artists and photographers and the art world in general, and it also asked them to position themselves in relation to the idea that art, artists, and audiences have a political role to play, particularly so in moments of crises.

Figure 1: Wolfgang Tillmans, Anti-Brexit Poster, April 2016

Figure 1: Wolfgang Tillmans, Anti-Brexit Poster, April 2016

Figure 2: Anti Brexit Campaign, Wolfgang Tillmans at Photo London, May 2016

Figure 2: Anti Brexit Campaign, Wolfgang Tillmans at Photo London, May 2016

Photograph: M. Bertrand

  • 8 The images were available from Tillmans’s website: “Please feel free to share these posters, they w (...)

10Tillmans’s studios produced 2,500 copies free of charge to voluntary organisations, and made the images available for printing at home or sharing on social media.8 Some posters specifically tackle the pressing issue of voter registration, something which made Tillmans feel particularly concerned:

  • 9 Ibid.

The official ‘Remain’ campaign feels lame and is lacking in passion. It also lacks an active drive to get voters registered – and with the deadline already falling two weeks before the referendum [on June 7th 2016], this should be an urgent priority.9

11New regulations meant that young voters were not automatically registered and Tillmans worried that the lack of information would effectively mean that many young people would be deprived of their votes, in a referendum which primarily concerned their futures:

Students no longer get automatically registered by their unis. This is because of a new law brought in by the Conservatives that makes it possible for them to disenfranchise up to 800,000 students, who as a group tend to move around a lot more and so drop off the voter register easily. (Id)

  • 10 “Don’t come to Glastonbury without having used your postal vote”, Ibid.

12Some of the posters clearly addressed young voters, referencing for instance the need to register before heading to Glastonbury, the world-famous music festival which gathers thousands of people in June.10 Young voter turn-out was a key issue as indicators showed that the older generation of baby boomers would weigh significantly in favour of Leave.

13The photographic images chosen by Tillmans as backdrops to some of the posters represent liminal spaces such as the line of a cliff, in direct evocation of the cliffs of Dover often used as a symbol of British isolationism, or skylines at the moment when light, sky and sea form layers blending into one another. The horizontal lines divide the space on the image and serve to present alternatives in clear-cut blocks of colour. The soft colours, the emotional address of the texts and the elevated viewpoint seem to invite the viewer to consider the importance of taking a stance by taking part in the referendum, to consider the eventual consequences of remaining indifferent, at a moment when the nation is poised for a historic decision. Following the results of the referendum, Tillmans pursued his work in anticipation of the 2019 European elections with similar designs and slogans translated in 23 languages. He initiated the project Eurolab, which gathered international artists and designers for workshops and discussions revolving on the European Union’s deficit in positive communication, and on how to address this in order to improve the perception of the European Union and of its role, values and action in the people’s interests.11

14Issues surrounding communication and the need to produce a political art, particularly in moments of acute tension, is a position shared by photographer Simon Roberts. In the wake of the referendum results, when the stakes around Brexit shifted to a focus on the political route favoured by the Government and the responsibilities of the new Prime Minister Theresa May, Roberts concentrated his work on dissecting the false rhetoric used in mainstream media coverage and in political discourse in relation to the ways in which this political theme was presented to the people.

Simon Roberts, “Between the Acts”

15The artwork created by Simon Roberts in the wake of the referendum marks a shift in his practice both in terms of the media used (with an increased use of sound and video installations instead of photography only) and in terms of political involvement. The condemnation of the way negotiations surrounding Brexit were handled by the British political class and commented on in the dominant media are explicit.

  • 12 Karine Chambefort-Kay, “We English, by Simon Roberts: “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape?”, E-Crini, (...)

16Simon Roberts is a British photographer, famous for his work which intertwines landscape photography and a strong documentary approach. He is the author of several highly-acclaimed books and exhibitions (Motherland, 2005; We, English 2009; The Election Project, 2010; Merry Albion, 2017, to name just a few). Roberts’s distinctive pictures are carefully composed photographs shot outdoors with a large format plate camera positioned at a slightly elevated angle, thus creating wide vistas where individuals gathered in different outdoor activities seem to be enacting social rituals in specific relation to a place. Roberts’s photographic work pays attention to the way cultural attitudes may be performed in the landscape and the way people interact in and with it, sustaining national imaginaries associated with place.12

17Roberts feels very strongly about the issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union and he was quick to respond to the subject with new work. Some of it took him away from his more classic documentary photography work and into other artistic forms and practices such as the use of video for example, which better served his critique of mainstream media. From the moment of the referendum until the official separation on January 31st 2020, he started on what eventually became a three-part project under the title “Between the Acts”. The phrase, borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s last novel, evokes the state of uncertainty and suspension, of something pending yet undecided, which Roberts used as a metaphor for the situation created in the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

  • 13 “Le second élément vient casser (ou scander) le studium. Cette fois, ce n’est pas moi qui vais le c (...)

18“Between the Acts, Part I” is a poster that Roberts created just one week following Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk signifying her decision as Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 of the European Constitution, thereby setting off the three-year process of negotiations. The poster depicts wanderers walking along a narrow path on top of the cliffs at Seven Sisters in Sussex, a typical local attraction. The white cliffs tower hundreds of feet above the shoreline, and a couple of people can be seen venturing dangerously close to the edge. Accompanied by a quotation from Woolf’s text, written during wartime (“They looked at the view; they looked at what they knew, to see if what they knew might perhaps be different today. Most days it was the same.”), the image seems to allude to the situation of Britons at an historical juncture, a pivotal moment when the future of the country is in the balance. The poster was produced at a moment when the UK and the European Union were only just starting the negotiations process, in a transition period initially supposed to last three years during which economic and political relationships would remain unaffected. It could seem then that nothing had changed yet and that things were at a standstill. The image probably hints at this mood where the dissatisfaction of some and the relief of others that nothing has changed are intertwined. The desire for change is entangled with the dread about what the future holds. The apparent tranquility and ordinariness of the scene depicted, maybe a Sunday stroll to the cliffs, reassuring in their permanence, their sheer size and unassailability (echoing the idea that “most days it was the same” while reviving imaginaries of the British nation as an island, proudly defended by its fortress-like cliffs) is troubled by what constitutes the punctum of the image, that which creates its instability, using Barthes’ concept, the chance fact that someone is lying on the grass at the cliff’s very edge and peering down at the pebble beach underneath.13 The chance of the moment in the scene is also what suggests the hazard, the possible fateful outcome of a fall, the gamble taken by the foolhardy visitors to the site in coming that close to the vertiginous drop. Such echoes of a looming peril in Roberts’ image, published in the uncertain context of the start of the negotiations, resonate with the situation of the UK, for Prime Minister Theresa May had only just decided to act upon the results of the referendum and take a leap into the unknown with the formal triggering of Article 50.

  • 14 Ironically, Roberts was asked by the local council of Brighton and Howe to remove the posters whose (...)

19The poster was shown on large advertising billboards and bus stops in Bristol, Glasgow, London and Manchester between February and March 2018. It occupied public space where advertising would have been expected, therefore disrupting the usual stream of commercial images with a much more enigmatic one. To British viewers, the symbolism of the cliffs belongs to a deeply-entrenched national iconography and mythology. Their representation on large hoardings or on bus stops would certainly evoke recognition but also wonder at their incongruousness in such places. In the flow of images made to sell, this one intended to intrigue and make passers-by ponder and reflect on the uncertain and perilous situation the country now found itself in.14

20In the course of the three years of negotiations (to which two further extensions were added), the subject of how to successfully bring the UK to formally leave the European Union occupied most debates in Parliament. It became the sole concern of the Government, and was given intense national and international media coverage. The massive outpour of statements, articles, soundbites and hours of debate both in Parliament and in the media provided Simon Roberts with the material for “Between the Acts, Part II – Brexit Lexicon”.15 This piece was first presented at the Brighton Photo Biennal in September and October 2018.16 It is a video installation consisting of a prompter on one side and a TV set on the other, where a newsreader is seen reciting in alphabetical order a litany of words which appeared in association with the Brexit talks. Roberts spent about two years compiling this list of about 5000 neologisms and phrases which have popped up in relation to the negotiations and the drafting of the Government’s Withdrawal Bill to enact the formal separation. Together, they form a dissonant collection of terms in which the issue was publicly talked about. On a green backdrop, of the kind used on TV sets for contrast and montage purposes, the real-life journalist reads through the long list of words and phrases given to him by the prompter in rapid succession: “Brexit beckons, Brexit betrayal, Brexit block, Brexit brain-drain, Brexit Brits abroad, Brexit broke Parliament, Brexit bus”.17 The exercise looks challenging, and the journalist can be seen at times stumbling on words, starting again or pausing to take a sip of water.18 The reading of this list, full of alliterations and plosive consonants, creates a discordant and jarring monologue which juxtaposes different and often opposed views expressed on the subject of Brexit in a cacophony of hollow neologisms, ludicrous associations, opinionated stances, pithy slogans or ominous warnings. Because Roberts used both reported speech from public debates and titles from the press, the two types of discourse are intertwined, in a comment on the ways in which political communication and the information produced by mainstream media tend increasingly to sound the same. The fact that in this piece they are served by the newsreader’s typical journalese delivery underlines the point. Through this staging of the mechanisms of media discourse, Roberts’s “Brexit Lexicon” is an indictment of the poor level of most debates that British people were given. The piece can be seen as a reflection on the increasing reliance on linguistically efficient but otherwise void soundbites which have become the staple of most political and media communication. The word Brexit itself becomes a hollow signifier, a misleading word which lends itself to use and abuse, recuperation and manipulation.19

  • 20 Guy Debord, La société du spectacle, Paris : Gallimard, [1967], 2018, §6.

21“Between the Acts, Part III – the Folly Marches On” reverts to the photographic image, with a focus on the construction of public images of political leaders in the media. Roberts’s installation consists in a sequence of press photographs displayed on a large screen, close-up portraits of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the three Prime Ministers who oversaw the issue of Brexit between 2016 and 2020. The work points to the theatricality of political posturing as these leaders manage or fail to keep a straight face, at critical decision-making moments engaging their responsibility. The piece interrogates the way public opinion about political leaders is shaped and informed by the constant circulation of their image, which participates in the spectacularisation of political life. According to Guy Debord, in the society of the spectacle, a separation is operated between the real and its representation in images produced for information, propaganda, advertising and entertainment.20 The contemplation of the spectacle, in the constant production, circulation and consumption of images of the real, informs the real and passes for it: the essence of the spectacle is in the sustaining of a state of illusion which mediates all social relations and is ultimately alienating. Such an evolution is worrying for the sound exercise of democratic debate. It brings people’s attention onto insignificant aspects of a problem such as the look upon the face of a political figure (as seen in exaggerated form in the blown-up press portraits projected in a loop in Roberts’s installation) while the focus on the faces also contributes to normalising the idea that political decision-making is the affair of powerful individuals instead of a collective activity. In a particularly grave moment for the country, where epoch-defining decisions were made, the reduction of politics to a spectacle, at times veering into farce, was felt by many as an affront. It detracted from the very raw and distressing consequences of Britain’s exit from the European Union for individuals whose lives in the UK sat in the balance of political negotiations.

Uta Kögelsberger, “Uncertain Subjects”

22The fate of the millions of European residents in the UK suddenly made subject to negotiations and political bargaining was a subject which Uta Kögelsberger reacted very strongly to, herself and her own personal and professional circles being directly affected. The issue caused an evolution in her practice.

23Uta Kögelsberger is a German artist living in the UK. She uses different media (video, photography, sound) in visual and performance works which question our assumptions that there may be boundaries between what we tend to consider as natural and wild versus what is described as human-made and artificial. Her work is concerned with the impact of human activity and extractivism on the land. Human presence is always only suggested, be it in traces and imprints or in large constructions and man-made environments which attempt to domesticate and recreate nature.

  • 21 Email exchange with the author, 1st May 2020.

24In 2017, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, Kögelsberger started a photographic project entitled “Uncertain Subjects”, which rather unusually in her work focused on the human figure. She was dismayed by the results: “A part of the project was that I felt like my own artist community that I have built up since 1989 in the UK was being pulled apart”.21 She produced a series of portraits of people, friends and people she knew, whose life is directly affected by Britain’s exit from the European Union. Being non-British residents, these people worried about their future in the country, and their situation in a post-Brexit UK was barely taken into account by the British government. The series of portraits shows the sitters in their personal environment, their shoulders bare, directly facing the viewer. The faces we see are very frank, open and generous, yet the bare shoulders impart a sense of the sitters’ vulnerability: we meet strangers who agree to lay themselves bare and be seen in the intimate space of their homes. The move is the opposite of the barricading reflexes of people who refuse to encounter alterity.

25The project first started as mail art.22 The portraits were reproduced on postcards, giving the name and occupation of the sitters, as well as a mention of their “non-confirmed resident status”, signifying that their right to remain in the UK had become subject to new regulations and conditioned to providing evidence of their residence. The metonymic relationship between the postcards – ephemeral and vulnerable objects which became the vehicles of the portraits – and the people represented on them presented a challenge to the addressees about what to do with these images, and symbolically, by extension, with these people: should they be kept and preserved or discarded and forgotten about?

  • 23 In London (Leake Street, famous for its street art, and Great Eastern Wall in Shoreditch), at the B (...)

26The idea evolved into a large photographic installation and performance piece called “Uncertain Subjects II”, shown several times in 2018 and 2019 in different public spaces in the UK.23 For this, Kögelsberger produced new portraits, recruiting people by word of mouth or by going to Anti-Brexit events. She used the same composition and style, asking people to present themselves bare-shouldered. However, this time the art project consisting in displaying the portraits on very wide horizontal billboards. (Fig. 3. Uncertain Subjects, Brighton Photo Biennal, 2018) For the models, taking part in the project was a courageous gesture, exposing them doubly: in their nakedness, and in the assertion of their political stance in the public space:

  • 24 Email conversation, 1st May 2020.

As somebody who had hardly ever taken a portrait before, there was something incredibly daunting in working on this project. Taking somebody’s picture gives you a such a sense of responsibility to do justice to the person photographed, especially when the image will be disseminated in such a public, highly visible way and on top of that associated with a highly contentious and fraught political matter.24

27The backdrops are plain and sober, and in colours which contrast with the sitters’ skins. Their names and occupations are accompanied with a short message describing their feelings about Brexit, ranging from anger, fear, uncertainty, despondency, vulnerability and shame. Some refer to their decision to move out of the UK as a result of Brexit. Kögelsberger explains that “The work gives a voice to those who feel they have been silenced by the failing democratic processes. It brings a personal lived experience back into the conversations surrounding Brexit.”25 European residents who work and have made their home in the UK were not allowed to take part in the vote. These people felt completely dispossessed of any form of control over a decision affecting their lives so directly, in the country where they had chosen to establish themselves. For months, the question of their rights remained a moot point on the part of the British government, despite assurances given during the referendum campaign by the Vote Leave camp that their rights would not be affected. These residents felt that they were used as bargaining chips in the negotiations on Brexit.26

Figure 3: Uncertain Subjects, Brighton Photo Biennal, 2018. © Uta Kögelsberger

Figure 3: Uncertain Subjects, Brighton Photo Biennal, 2018. © Uta Kögelsberger

28Because of their sheer size and the directness of the gazes, the portraits in “Uncertain Subjects” invite viewers to pause and consider the concrete consequences of Brexit on people’s lives, be they British or non-British residents. As the UK was set to restrict the free circulation of people coming from European Union member states, the right to continue living and working in the UK that ordinary European citizens enjoyed was suddenly jeopardized, making their future uncertain. Uncertainty is also conveyed in the installation itself. In the different places where Kögelsberger produced the work, which included Newcastle’s Grainger Market, it consisted in a performance whereby a bill sticker was seen pasting the portraits, one after and over the other, thus producing a giant palimpsest of faces mingling into one another. In the process, as the technician added new layers, the portraits were momentarily imbricated, composing hybrid portraits and hyphenated identities.27 The progressive dissolution of the images of these people, suggested in the succession of these different faces on the surface of the hoarding, also symbolizes a breaking-apart of British society as some of these people chose to leave the country and vanish. As Kögelsberger writes:

  • 28 Email conversation, 1st May, 2020.

Developing on from […] this sense that my community was being pulled apart, I started to specifically look for people who had decided to uproot their lives because of Brexit. […] It is maybe here that the project started to feel like I was creating a historic document of a society that is breaking apart.28

29Kögelsberger’s installations represent an artistic and political intervention in the urban environment. Produced over several hours, they function as an artistic performance. They disrupt the primary function of commercial hoardings, thus echoing the modes of communication also experimented by Tillmans and Roberts in their own projects. At stake in such a détournement is the interruption of the constant alienating flow of advertising messages which occupy public space and have become normalised in the urban landscape. Kögelsberger, Tillmans and Roberts reclaim these spaces by inviting political debate on the surface of the billboards and into the street. The re-appropriation of public spaces from the privatizing processes at stake in the commercial encroachment of streets is a political act which frees that space for vital civic debate.

Laura Pannack, “Separation”

30The question of the situation of European residents, who have chosen to live, work, and start families in the UK, is a subject that photographer Laura Pannack also explored in “Separation”, a series of photographs she created in February 2018.29 She was commissioned by the British Journal of Photography for this project sponsored by Affinity Photo, a photo editing software available on Ipads, which provided the materials.

31Pannack is a young photographer distinguished for her work in portraiture. Her projects have drawn her to work with children and young people on subjects such as their relation to love, friendship, self-representation, the body.30 The intimate portraits she creates bear witness to the relationships based on trust that Pannack builds with her models. The project that she started as a response to Brexit brings these themes and qualities to the fore: the couples she photographed appear to be at ease with her camera and able to engage fully with the question that she raised: “What does Brexit mean for love?”31

32Whereas staunch Leavers saw the separation of the UK from the European Union as a desirable end to attain, in the belief that this would result in a regained political sovereignty and control over the borders and direction of the country, for many people the prospect of such a separation meant something directly personal and devastating: the distanciation from loved ones, an outcome which many mixed couples (British/European national) found themselves suddenly forced to contemplate:

With Britain soon to sever its ties with the European Union, tens of thousands of people face the possibility of losing their right to work in the UK, not to mention being forced out of the country that they share with their partner. Brexit has long garnered column inches for its political implications, but what does it mean for love?32

33The British Journal of Photography advertised Pannack’s project and invited couples facing such a situation and interested in participating to make contact. The portraits conceived by Pannack translate separation into a tangible thing, represented by a thin opaque veil which comes between two people. The veil materialises a frontier isolating the partners from one another and frustrating their embrace however hard they may try to stretch and puncture it. On the portraits, the figure of the partner left behind becomes barely distinguishable as though they were kept at a distance by an impenetrable fog. These melancholic visual representations of separation act as metaphors for the effect of new regulations which could come between two partners and threaten their right to live together irrespective of their nationality. The intimate expressions on the people’s faces, as they clutch their loved ones, express anxiety and uncertainty, but also defiance and resolve. These highly emotional images bring to the fore the very concrete and personal consequences that a political decision like Brexit means for people whose love is independent from any frontier.

  • 33 “In 2014 out of 1,771,200 estimated couple families in London 102,400 contained one UK national an (...)
  • 34 At the level of the Greater London Authority, 60% of people supported Remain. See Joseph Colombeau (...)

34The studio sessions being organised in London, the participants who took part in the project were mostly young Londoners involved in the creative sector. This says something of the attraction that the capital has continuously exerted on non-British workers and students in the past decades. It comes as no surprise that many mixed couples should be established in London, considering that many of them are active in its vibrant and international cultural sector.33 Both Pannack and Kögeslberger’s work highlight the situation of an estimated 3 million European citizens whose lives are immediately affected by restrictions on freedom of circulation. These people are representative of that cosmopolitan, socially liberal, educated and well-travelled middle class which was likely to support Remain.34

35These are the very people who are perceived by Leavers as an elite whose concerns are miles away from other sections of the British population among whom feelings of abandon and disenfranchisement run high. Pannack’s images are very socially situated, and extremely important in their defence of values of tolerance, openness and respect for diversity. However, one criticism may be that they could only ever preach to the converted. Such projects are shown and circulated in specialized magazines or cultural institutions in the larger cities; their perspective brings them in contact with a more socially privileged category of the population for whom cosmopolitanism is a reality and something to preserve. The rift between Remainers and Leavers, which divided the British population along distinctive sociological patterns, place of residence, economic situation, age and education, and also divided families, was so deep and entrenched that these images may not have been able to cut across the xenophobic and exclusionary rhetoric fanned by a far-right party such as UKIP. Even though the consequences of Brexit may hit hardest precisely the people who were convinced that it was in their interests to vote Leave. It is indeed probably in the poorer areas where economic activity is in decline, health and education inequalities the starkest, and where the Leave vote was strong that the consequences of Britain’s exit from the European Union will be felt the most.

Ed Alcock, “On the Road to Brexit” and Home Sweet Home

36These territories became the focus of photojournalist Ed Alcock’s work. A journey starting only three days after the referendum and ending at the moment of the official withdrawal of the UK from the European Union marked a personal change for him, the possibility to reconnect with his country of origin as well as the occasion of saying farewell to his fellow countrymen and women.

  • 35 “J’ai voulu comprendre pourquoi mes compatriotes avaient donné une telle raclée à l’Union Européenn (...)
  • 36 The caption to one of Alcock’s photograph, taken at the University of Exeter on July 7th 2016 consi (...)

37French-British photographer Ed Alcock (a member of Myop photographic agency) with journalist Louis Imbert travelled the UK in the summer of 2016 and again with journalist Philippe Bernard in the summer of 2017 for the French newspaper Le Monde, in a journey that took them from the Scottish Border to Southern England and Wales, visiting the small towns struggling with economic decline and the rural territories where the Leave vote was strong. “I wanted to understand why my fellow countrymen and women gave the European Union such a thrashing”, Alcock explains.35 He was personally stunned by the results. His photographs offer a perceptive insight into British society in the wake of a political event experienced by many like a trauma,36 and through the successive and somewhat chaotic process that followed.

38Starting on June 26th 2016 just three days after the referendum, Alcock’s series “On the Road to Brexit” is a journey to the places that remained outside of the radar of the media. He stopped short of going to London precisely because the idea was to shed light on the areas that have been neglected both by politicians and the media. It is from these places that a deep resentment about the social, economic and political situation of Britain turned against the European Union and what it was believed to embody: “red-tape” bureaucracy and pointless regulations, policies that do not benefit the British farming sector and fisheries, out-of-control immigration. Some of the places they visited were among those where the highest Leave majorities were reached, such as Wisbech, in Cambridgeshire where 70% of voters supported Brexit (compared to 53.4% for England only).

  • 37 “Ed Alcock: Le Brexit m’a donné envie de devenir français”, France 24, 17 juin 2019, <https://www.f (...)

39From Carlisle to the Scottish border, Bradford and rural Yorkshire, Marlborough, Exeter, Port Talbot and Cardiff in Wales, Alcock turned his camera to the people he met on the way. Leavers, Remainers or non-voters, they are portrayed standing in front of or inside their homes, in their street or their place of work. In a style which evokes travel notes, the portraits are accompanied by a short note indicating the date and location, as well as the names of the people and their thoughts and reactions on Brexit. Alcock also photographs the road signs, the countryside, the discarded papers, the objects decorating the front window of a house, in a collection of signs and symbols that feebly help make sense of the situation and reflect the nation back to itself. A Union Jack flag, a sign reading “Englishtown”, a graffiti announcing that “It has begun”, a turn in the road signaling an exit... After twenty years immersed in France, looking back at the country where he was born, Alcock endeavoured to grasp the mood of the country. The succession of people he met held different views, sometimes within the same family or group of friends, and their situations were very varied: pensioner, immigrant, young person, student, farmer, unemployed steel worker, voluntary worker. There is a sense of a deep frustration and anger with the economic situation, fears about the future, a rejection of the supposed domination of “Brussels” and its restrictive policies especially in the farming sector. Divisions are becoming deeply entrenched and party allegiances have been redrawn since the referendum, something Alcock was able to witness. Anti-immigration discourses seem to have gained ground, in places like Bradford, a former industrial capital and Labour bastion in the heart of Yorkshire, with a long history of immigrant settlement from India, Pakistan and more recently Poland and Eastern Europe. The city switched sides in the referendum and returned a Conservative MP in the 2019 General Elections. Alcock met people who felt betrayed by the result and sensed more tension and racism in the city. In Exeter on the other hand, typical in that respect of university cities, the presence of a strong student population meant that Brexit was rejected and the Labour Party kept their seat, unlike what happened in the neighbouring constituencies. Alcock captures the helplessness and despondency of members of staff in the Law department at Exeter University for whom Brexit is a terrible blow. (Fig. 4. On the road to Brexit - day 4 -1st July 2016. Jasmin Barton (26) is a member of the administrative staff at the Law School of the University of Exeter. She voted to remain in the EU) For voters in Port Talbot, in Wales, where hundreds of jobs have been lost in the steel industry, privatised in the 1970s and until recently in the hands of the Indian company Tata Steel, people expressed their anger and frustration by using the Leave vote. These are the territories far from the larger and more prosperous urban centres that suffered the most in the 1980s because of Margaret Thatcher’s industrial policies, and which have not recovered since nor found new productive economic models. Tellingly, the journalists and the photographer discovered that across the country, people tended to resort to the same rhetoric and similar arguments, an indicator of the influence of the media and political communication in the forging of public opinion.37 Alcock returned in June 2017 on the same journey and photographed again the people he had met a year before. Some of them said they had changed their minds and regretted their votes.

Figure 4: On the road to Brexit – day 4 -1st July 2016. © Ed Alcock/M.Y.O.P

Figure 4: On the road to Brexit – day 4 -1st July 2016. © Ed Alcock/M.Y.O.P
  • 38 “Le Royaume-Uni post-Brexit dans l’œil d’Ed Alcock”, Le Monde, 08 juillet 2016 ; “Royaume-Uni, de l (...)
  • 39 62% of Scottish voters chose Remain in June 2016.

40Since June 2016, Alcock has regularly gone back to the UK with different French journalists, publishing in Le Monde and Le Monde Diplomatique.38 The initial series has thus become a long-term documentation of British society over the period of negotiations between the UK and the European Union. He went back in January and February 2019, then again at the moment of the General Elections on December 12th 2019 and on “Brexit Day”, the official date of separation on January 31st 2020. Over that period, he extended his travels to Glasgow, Northern Ireland, Liverpool, Prescot, Bristol. His last stop in February 2020 was in the port town of Newhaven, in East Sussex, where the population is concerned that maritime exchanges with mainland Europe will slow down and affect the local economy. In Scotland, the large majority of people he photographed opposed Brexit, yet are divided over the issue of Scotland’s independence, seen by its supporters as a way of reintegrating the European Union. The prospect of further disunion of the UK looms large.39

41A more personal project evolved for Alcock from these travels across the UK. As a person of mixed French and British heritage who made the decision to apply for the French nationality on the day following the referendum, Alcock found that Brexit triggered a whole set of questions about belonging, national identity, the ties that remain or are undone with one’s birthplace.40 Home Sweet Home is a piece of artwork which juxtaposes some of the photographs that he took while working on his documentary series and the pages of a text-book for French students of English published in the 1950s, at a time when the European Economic Community was only just taking shape. (Fig. 5. Home Sweet Home, 2019) Exhibited in Paris and Arles, the project explores imaginaries of the nation, both French and British, from Alcock’s own decentered relationship to Britain, as he reflects on the increasingly inward-looking evolution of his motherland and his decision to become French. Reflections on British identity after the Brexit referendum form the backdrop to the next and final series of work, which offers a collection of images produced by photographers who all live and work in the UK.

Figure 5: Home Sweet Home, 2019

Figure 5: Home Sweet Home, 2019

Paul Sng – Invisible Britain

42Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience is a photographic project and a book, curated and co-edited by British filmmaker Paul Sng, Chloe June and Laura Dicken.41 It gathers forty portraits made by forty UK-based photographers, accompanied by statements made by the sitters and approved by them after editing. The book, published in November 2018, was inspired by Sng’s documentary film Sleaford Mods, Invisible Britain, which followed the UK tour of the Nottingham band in 2015.42 The campaign for the General Elections of 2015 forms the backdrop of the film. These elections resulted in a clear Conservative victory and a new mandate for David Cameron, after the five years of coalition with the Liberal-Democrats (2010-2015). The results also shaped the future course of Britain with the promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The Sleaford Mods, formed of Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn, enjoy a strong popularity in the UK among a mostly working-class audience. Williamson’s unforgivingly brash lyrics address the experiences of people who bear the brunt of austerity policies in a country where social services have been drastically cut and unemployment is high. The band deliberately chooses to do their gigs in small provincial venues rather than in the larger concert halls.

  • 43 Reforms such as the Welfare Reform Act introduced in 2012, Universal Credit in 2013, cuts in budge (...)
  • 44 “Paul Sng on New Book Invisible Britain: Portraits”, interview by Bridie Squires, Left Lion, 3rd Ap (...)
  • 45 Ibidem.
  • 46 Ibid.
  • 47 Lisa McKenzie, Getting by: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, Bristol University Pres (...)

43The idea for the book of photographs came as Paul Sng traveled with the band, met members of their audience and listened to their stories on the effects of cuts on their living conditions. Sng wanted to give visibility to the people who have been at the receiving end of drastic reforms in the British social welfare system since the beginning of the Coalition government,43 in what he calls “the ruins of austerity Britain”.44 Austerity hit particularly hard the post-industrial provincial towns already struggling to maintain an economic activity. These areas concentrate high levels of unemployment and poverty, and local councils endeavour to deliver basic services as their budgets are cut. It is probably there, in “the neglected, broken down and boarded up parts of the country that many would prefer to ignore”,45 where communities feel neglected and abandoned, that anti-establishment sentiment was the most acute in the years leading to the Brexit referendum. Yet in the film as in the book, Sng’s intention is to shed light on stories of people who fight and resist the ruthlessness of cuts or the injustice of intractable bureaucracy. The people portrayed in the book are all active in one way or another in the defence of the social system and opposition to austerity policies which damage their lives and their communities. “What we were seeing wasn’t ‘Broken Britain’, but rather the frontline of a nationwide resistance to the breakdown of the places they live.”46 The portraits in Invisible Britain are the opposite of the caricatural, voyeuristic and patronising portraits of working-class people that are the stock in trade of tabloids and “poverty-porn” programmes on television.47 They invite readers to consider social inequalities as evidence of a deliberate destruction of the welfare state under the programme of austerity policies defended and implemented by the Conservative Government since 2010. The book was produced over the years 2017-18, in a context dominated by the question of Brexit. Reading the different testimonies, it appears very clearly that the worsening of social conditions experienced by people has little to do with the European Union and a lot more with the neoliberal orientations implemented by the ruling class in the course of the previous decade. Paul Sng opines that this is what needs to be faced:

  • 48 Ibid.

Marginalised communities are rarely heard from in the media, and it took the Brexit vote for politicians to take notice of the anger and frustration in areas that voted predominantly to leave the EU. In some respects, the EU referendum was also a referendum on the poor state of public services, the lack of affordable housing, and a protest vote against government. The accusation that the people who voted to leave the EU were thick and ignorant misses the point; politicians were lax in their duty for not paying attention to the concerns of people in areas that have suffered for decades from deindustrialisation and cuts to public services.48

44The book brings together a broad range of opinions, including the views of those who voted Leave and consider that immigration is Britain’s first problem. References to Brexit come up in some testimonies, that some see as a solution, drawn to the Vote Leave promise of “Taking back control”. But it is not the object of the book, and what comes out most strongly in people’s analysis of their situation and that of their communities is the state of neglect of welfare provision, the direct effects on their lives of stressful and blindly implemented procedures, the paternalising and harassing demands made on them by social services. The degradation of people’s living and working conditions in the UK after a decade of cuts in public spending is there for all to see. The photographs in the collection are indeed portraits of hope and resilience, as viewers discover the realities of people struggling with low pay, management pressure, disability, mental health issues, isolation, being an exile in Britain, victims of violence or survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. These people resist, organize, campaign, seek justice and try to rebuild their lives against a relentless bureaucracy. The portraits, made by a generation of young documentary photographers at the start of their career, present in a very dignified way these people whose existences are more often than not made invisible, ignored and turned into a statistic. Juxtaposed to the testimonies, they invite proximity with and empathy for the person who shares their experience.

45On May 1st 2020, Paul Sng launched a crowdfunding campaign to support a new collaborative photographic book project entitled This Separated Isle, “A photobook of stories and portraits exploring concepts of identity in modern Britain”.49 Providing funding targets are reached, the book will use a similar format to Invisible Britain, Portraits of Hope and Resilience, with a series of portraits made by different photographers (many of the original participants for the first project) accompanied by a personal testimony by the models. For Sng, based in Edinburgh, the project took shape as the issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union dominated the news and the rising levels of racism particularly concerned him. The title of the new book, suggests worries over the unity of the country in a post-Brexit context, and subverts the line from John of Gaunt’s monologue in Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act II, scene 1) when he warns that “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle”, an Edenic England blessed by providence, is threatened with devastation under the rule of Richard II. In 2020, following a period of almost four years when Brexit reinforced divisions, put a crude light on social inequalities, led to a worrying surge in hate crimes and racism50, and while “sections of the media frequently present one-dimensional narratives around both immigrants and what it means to be British, which has served to deepen hostilities in an already divided nation” (Ibidem), Sng’s intention in this project is to give visibility to people whose social condition, ethnicity, age, ill-health, disability, immigrant status, sexual orientation or other exposes them to exclusion. Through the photographs and the testimonies, the project aims to collect their understandings of identity, otherness and their conceptions of what Britishness means, be they British or non-British residents in the UK. It is hoped that from the gallery of portraits and the voicing out of various perspectives, a picture of contemporary, post-Brexit Britain can emerge.


46The artworks presented in this selection were created at different stages of the political process which eventually led to Britain’s formal exit from the European Union on 31st January 2020. As such, their specific modes of address, their respective temporalities, the contexts in which they were produced and intervened were different and sought to achieve different aims with different audiences. At the time when Brexit was still only a yes-no question presented to the British people in a referendum, Wolfgang Tillmans’ Anti-Brexit posters aimed to weigh in the debates, voicing a very clear message in favour of Remain and raising awareness about the risks of voting Leave. As the negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal began with the European Union, Roberts, and to an extent Alcock and the photographers involved in Sng’s Invisible Britain project, produced artworks which shed light on the strategies used in political and media communication and their role in constructing a narrative which made Brexit desirable in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. From their work emerges an invitation to engage in a collective reflection on the evolution of Britain’s mainstream media, on its political class and on the policy choices that have been made in the country over the last decade.

47The political phase from the moment of the referendum until the official withdrawal from the European Union transformed the practice of many of these photographers. This is reflected in a more direct engagement in politics, as is clearly the case for Tillmans and Roberts. Concern with the politics of representation is also crucially at stake in the constant attention to processes of participation, be it in the creative explorations of the possibilities of portraits in the case of Kögelseberger and Pannack or the public circulation of images through online sharing, posters, postcards, billboards or newspapers. Many of the projects examined reclaimed and subverted, even momentarily, the surfaces that have been normalized as serving advertising purposes (Tillmans, Roberts, Kögelsberger) These spaces were deliberately re-politicised, turning the street into a political forum. They called for urgently-needed honest debates on issues regarding people’s social conditions. All these artistic initiatives represent a way of making art that is political but also ethical and inclusive.

48Another evolution brought about by the political circumstances of Britain’s exit from the European Union to the work of these artists is a concern with giving visibility: to the marginalized, the poor, those without a voice because of their social condition or their national identity, in the case of European residents. This explains the centrality of portraits in many of these projects (Kögeslberger, Pannack, Alcock and the collective work of Invisible Britain). They give a representation to the hidden lives of people, who, like millions of others, feel personally affected by Brexit. The portraits produced by these photographers serve an intention to give visibility to the conditions of people whose future in the country is uncertain or who feel neglected and forgotten about in a profoundly unequal social and political system. What is at stake in such portraits is the defence of values of social inclusion and the resistance to misrepresentation and caricature. Whereas Brexit, be it understood as an election promise, the isolationist decision of a country, or a complex process of international negotiations and legislative evolutions, challenges fundamental tenets in British society such as diversity, openness and tolerance, these different projects firmly defend these values, perhaps with all the more determination because so much is at stake.

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“Le Royaume-Uni post-Brexit dans l’œil du photographe Ed Alcock”, Le Monde, 8 Juillet 2016. <>, accessed on 25 April, 2021.

“Royaume-Uni, de l’Empire au Brexit”, Le Monde Diplomatique, Manières de voir, N°153, Juin-Juillet 2017.

“Ed Alcock: Le Brexit m’a donné envie de devenir français”, France 24, 17 juin 2019. <>, accessed on 25 April, 2021.

“Les Britanniques et le Brexit, de la colère à la résignation”, Le Monde, 31 janvier 2020.

“‘C’est le premier jour de sortie de l’Europe, mais cela ne semble pas vraiment différent’ : de Douvres à Calais, à bord d’un ferry post-Brexit”, Le Monde, 2 février 2020.

BARTHES Roland, La Chambre claire : Note sur la photographie, Paris: Seuil, 1980.

BUELTMAN Tanya, Experiences and Impact of the EU Settlement Scheme, Report on the3million Settled Status Survey, The 3 Million and Northumbria University, January 2020. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

CHAMBEFORT-KAY Karine “We English, by Simon Roberts: “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape?”, E-Crini, Université de Nantes, 7, 2014.

CHRISTIE Emma, DOUGLASS Gordon (Eds.), “London and Europe: Facts and Figures”, Current Issues, Greater London Authority Economics, 51, February 2017.

CREATIVE INDUSTRIES FEDERATION, Brexit Report. The Impact of Leaving the EU on the UK’s Arts, Creative Industries and Cultural Education – and What Should Be Done. London: Creative Industries Federation, October 2016.

COLOMBEAU Joseph, “EU Referendum Results: A Demographic Breakdown”, London Data Store, Mayor of London, June 29th 2016. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

DEBORD Guy, La société du spectacle, Paris : Gallimard, [1967], 2018.

MCKENZIE Lisa, Getting by: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, Bristol University Press: Policy Press, 2015.

MAGUIRE Patrick and CHAKELIAN Anoosh, “The Deepest Cuts: Austerity Measured”, New Statesman, 10th October 2018. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

PEARCE Nick, KELLY Gavin (Eds.), Britain Beyond Brexit, Hoboken: Wiley, 2019.

QUINN Ben, “Hate crimes double in five years in England and Wales”, The Guardian, 15 October 2019. <>, accessed on 20 April 2021.

SCHNAPPER Pauline, “David Cameron et la campagne du “Remain””, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XXII-2 | 2017.

SNG Paul, Sleaford Mods, Invisible Britain [Film], Velvet Joy Productions, 2015.

SNG Paul (Ed.), Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, Bristol: Policy Press, 2018.







KÖGELSBERGER Uta, Uncertain Subjects, <>

KÖGELSBERGER Uta, Uncertain Subjects Part II, <>

KÖGELSBERGER Uta, Uncertain Subjects Brighton Photo Biennal, <>

PANNACK Laura, <>

PANNACK Laura, “Laura Pannack: What does Brexit mean for love? #1”, 12 March 2018, <>

ROBERTS Simon, <>


ROBERTS Simon, “Brexit Lexicon”, <>

TILLMANS Wolfgang, <>

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1 See Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly, “Introduction: Brexit and the Future of the British Model of Democratic Capitalism”, in Britain Beyond Brexit, Hoboken: Wiley, 2019.

2 Pauline Schnapper, “David Cameron et la campagne du ‘Remain’”, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XXII-2 | 2017.

3 Wolfgang Tillmans, 24th June 2016, <>, accessed April 2020.

4 “I want to get involved and actively campaign. In particular, I want to work towards maximizing turnout among younger voters”, Wolfgang Tillmans, 25th April 2016. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

5 For example, claims by the Vote Leave campaign that the British contribution to the EU budget amounted to £350 million a week, which would be better spent on the NHS, were proven to be misleading by the UK Statistics Authority. UK Statistics Authority, 27th May 2016. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

6 Wolfgang Tillmans, 24th June 2016, <>, accessed on 25 April 2021. The posters can be found as open-source documents on this page.

7 “Between Bridges is a foundation (est. 2017) for the advancement of democracy, international understanding, the arts, and LGBT rights. Between Bridges was a non-profit exhibition space in London from 2006–2011, and in Berlin from 2014–2019, organised by Wolfgang Tillmans”, <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

8 The images were available from Tillmans’s website: “Please feel free to share these posters, they work as print your own PDFs, or on social media, or in any other way you can think of. I consider them open-source, you can take my name tag off if more appropriate”. Wolfgang Tillmans, 25th April 2016, Ibidem.

9 Ibid.

10 “Don’t come to Glastonbury without having used your postal vote”, Ibid.

11 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

12 Karine Chambefort-Kay, “We English, by Simon Roberts: “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape?”, E-Crini, Université de Nantes, 7, 2014.

13 “Le second élément vient casser (ou scander) le studium. Cette fois, ce n’est pas moi qui vais le chercher (comme j’investis de ma conscience souveraine le champ du studium), c’est lui qui part de la scène comme une flèche, et vient me percer. […] Ce second élément qui vient déranger le studium, je l’appellerai donc punctum ; car punctum, c’est aussi : piqûre, petit trou, petite tache, petite coupure – et aussi coup de dés. Le punctum d’une photo, c’est ce hasard qui, en elle, me point (mais aussi me meurtrit, me poigne).” Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire : Note sur la photographie, Paris : Seuil, 1980, 48-9.

14 Ironically, Roberts was asked by the local council of Brighton and Howe to remove the posters whose contents were deemed contrary to safety regulations. His response was to create and display retouched images of the same picture: he saturated the colours of the cliffs, de facto editing them out, resulting in an eerie image where people appear to be wandering on a lunar landscape. The incongruousness of the new images was Roberts’s answer to the council’s zealous and probably overeager interpretation of safety guidelines. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

15 For this piece, Roberts took up again an idea explored in his project “Credit Crunch Lexicon” (2012) which departed from his previous work both aesthetically and technically in that it did not use photography at all but rather focused on language and the construction of mediatic discourse, in multimedia installations.

16 It was presented in many other venues afterwards, such as at the Format Festival in Derby, 15 March - 15 April, 2019.

17 <> and <>, accessed on 25 April 2021. From 00’04 to 00’10.

18 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

19 Roberts has continued working along that vein, exploring the language of Brexit with his installation called the “Brexshit machine” (2020). On a LED reader, a series of neologisms all starting with the prefix “Brex-” appear, parodying the media’s habit of creating neologisms which often become concise and reductive slogans for otherwise very complex subjects, the term Brexit itself being a case in point. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

20 Guy Debord, La société du spectacle, Paris : Gallimard, [1967], 2018, §6.

21 Email exchange with the author, 1st May 2020.

22 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

23 In London (Leake Street, famous for its street art, and Great Eastern Wall in Shoreditch), at the Bristol Photo Biennal (2018) and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (2019). The recruitment process evolved over the different stages of the project. At first Kögelsberger sought to reach out in particular to people for whom Brexit had triggered their decision to leave. For the Brighton installation, she went out to find people whose position on Brexit had changed and who felt they should have voted Remain, yet she found that it was very difficult to actually recruit these people for the project and all but one accepted to be photographed. Finally, in Newcastle, Kögelsberger worked with people from different backgrounds, including workers at the Grainger Market, people from community centres and her own colleagues at the University of Newcastle. Email conversation, 1st May, 2020.

24 Email conversation, 1st May 2020.

25 <>, accessed April, 2020.

26 See Tanya Bueltman, Experiences and Impact of the EU Settlement Scheme, Report on The 3 Million Settled Status Survey, The 3 Million and Northumbria University, January 2020, 51. <>, accessed April, 2020.

27 See for instance this video from the artist’s website <>, accessed April, 2020.

28 Email conversation, 1st May, 2020.

29 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

30 “The Cracker”, “Young Love”, “Digital Self-Esteem”, or “Young British Naturists” are some of her latest projects. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

31 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

32 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

33 “In 2014 out of 1,771,200 estimated couple families in London 102,400 contained one UK national and one EU national”, in Emma Christie and Gordon Douglass (eds.), “London and Europe: Facts and Figures”, Current Issues, Greater London Authority Economics, 51, February 2017, 30.

34 At the level of the Greater London Authority, 60% of people supported Remain. See Joseph Colombeau, “EU Referendum Results: A Demographic Breakdown”, London Data Store, Mayor of London, June 29th, 2016. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

35 “J’ai voulu comprendre pourquoi mes compatriotes avaient donné une telle raclée à l’Union Européenne”. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

36 The caption to one of Alcock’s photograph, taken at the University of Exeter on July 7th 2016 consists in a testimony by a member of staff: “It was like a morgue on Friday morning and has not improved much since then. It was like someone had died. People were crying in the corridors. We all felt, and still feel, like the values that we hold dear, tolerance, liberalism, social progressivism, inclusivity, internationalism, have been wiped away in an instant. International staff here are frightened, and some have suffered verbal abuse. Academics worry about the anti-intellectualism that the campaign has unleashed. We are already seeing staff from all nations (including non-EU nations) saying they don’t want to live in a country like ours.” <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

37 “Ed Alcock: Le Brexit m’a donné envie de devenir français”, France 24, 17 juin 2019, <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

38 “Le Royaume-Uni post-Brexit dans l’œil d’Ed Alcock”, Le Monde, 08 juillet 2016 ; “Royaume-Uni, de l’Empire au Brexit”, Le Monde Diplomatique, Manières de voir, N°153, Juin-Juillet 2017 ; “Les Britanniques et le Brexit, de la colère à la resignation”, Le Monde, 31 janvier 2020 ; “‘C’est le premier jour de sortie de l’Europe, mais cela ne semble pas vraiment différent’: de Douvres à Calais, à bord d’un ferry post-Brexit”, Le Monde, 2 février 2020.

39 62% of Scottish voters chose Remain in June 2016.

40 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

41 See <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

42 Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain. Paul Sng, Velvet Joy Production: 2015.

43 Reforms such as the Welfare Reform Act introduced in 2012, Universal Credit in 2013, cuts in budgets for libraries and youth services, along with the scraping of New Labour social policies for education or support to low-income families. See Patrick Maguire and Anoosh Chakelian, “The Deepest Cuts: Austerity Measured”, New Statesman, 10th October 2018. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

44 “Paul Sng on New Book Invisible Britain: Portraits”, interview by Bridie Squires, Left Lion, 3rd April 2018. <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

45 Ibidem.

46 Ibid.

47 Lisa McKenzie, Getting by: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, Bristol University Press: Policy Press, 2015.

48 Ibid.

49 <>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

50 Ben Quinn, “Hate crimes double in five years in England and Wales”, The Guardian, 15 October 2019,>, accessed on 25 April 2021.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Wolfgang Tillmans, Anti-Brexit Poster, April 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 426k
Titre Figure 2: Anti Brexit Campaign, Wolfgang Tillmans at Photo London, May 2016
Crédits Photograph: M. Bertrand
Fichier image/jpeg, 107k
Titre Figure 3: Uncertain Subjects, Brighton Photo Biennal, 2018. © Uta Kögelsberger
Fichier image/jpeg, 5,3M
Titre Figure 4: On the road to Brexit – day 4 -1st July 2016. © Ed Alcock/M.Y.O.P
Fichier image/jpeg, 103k
Titre Figure 5: Home Sweet Home, 2019
Fichier image/jpeg, 529k
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Mathilde Bertrand, « Can Brexit be photographed? Six photographic projects raising critical questions about Britain’s exit from the European Union (2016-2020) »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 19-n°51 | 2021, document 7, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2021, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Mathilde Bertrand

Mathilde Bertrand est maîtresse de conférences en civilisation britannique à l'université Bordeaux-Montaigne (CLIMAS). Ses recherches portent sur l'histoire de la photographie britannique au XXe et XXIe siècles, et en particulier l’avènement de collectifs de photographes dans les années 1970s ("The Half Moon Photography Workshop and Camerawork: catalysts in the British photographic landscape (1972-1985)", Photography and Culture, 11 :3, 2018). Ses travaux abordent également la question des politiques publiques de l’art au Royaume-Uni et le mouvement community arts.

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