Relative Poverty

Les Monaghan’s Relative Poverty

Against a darkened background a man’s hand holds a single coin, the amount of money ‘Dave’ had on November 28, 2016. This is just one of the images in Les Monaghan’s devastating photographic work Relative Poverty.

On June 7, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released its Destitution in the UK 2018 report.

It found more than 1.5 million people in the UK were ‘pushed into destitution’ last year alone.

Back in April, 2016, the foundation released a report showing 1.25 million people were living in destitution.

Monaghan began Relative Poverty the day after reading the 2016 report, its coverage in The Guardian and subsequent trolling.

“I have seen this first hand, I have seen the reports and it has happened over and over again,” he says.

“It got to a stage when I thought, ‘if not now when?’, we have got to do something.

“I thought this would be a good test to see if I could use all the things I learned in photography over the years for a good purpose.”


Relative Poverty
Dave’s kitchen © Les Monaghan

Relative Poverty

Monaghan believes the ‘huge mass’ of people living in poverty are unrepresented in the media. When their lives are reported or examined it is often in a hostile fashion.

“The story of the UK’s destitute does not fit Philip Jones Griffiths’ media enforced ‘standard view’ of the world,” he said.

“I believe that the media invisibility enables the government to continue its neglect.”

For those who dismiss empirical research he hopes Relative Poverty bears witness to lives lived in poverty in 2016/17.

“We all know them, the naysayers who don’t believe the figures. I thought there must be another way, if they are not believing something like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to convince them.

“Photography has the power to take you into these people’s homes, into their living rooms, their kitchens.

“I wanted to make it almost overwhelming so you could not ignore it.”

Working with families in destitution in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, Monaghan attempted to redress the imbalance of power.

“I chose to photograph those who are not street homeless and sought families behind closed doors.

“These are people who are all around us – 1.25 million is more than the population of Birmingham – but you won’t see them on the bus (they walk), they do the unseen jobs, or are housebound.

“I wanted to use photography to lift the cloak of systemic and wilful invisibility.”

Dave’s training as a painter and decorator is evident in the skilled papering around his home © Les Monaghan

An obligation to act

Relative Poverty has been shown across Doncaster Libraries, Sheffield Central Library and Doncaster Minster.

It has also been displayed at the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers’ conference, schools and universities.

For Monaghan, exhibiting the project outside of the sphere of museums and galleries was vitally important.

“It has been shown in those places because if it was shown at galleries or in a book, where is it going to go?

“Most gallery visitors are educated, they know how the world works. This is about people like our parents, it has to go into libraries, schools and universities.

“It is about trying to reach those people that you couldn’t reach with traditional advertising.”

This week, the project will be on display at the Welfare Conditionality conference at the University of York.

“As I worked with the families I learnt that they were all in destitution as a result of government policy.

“Alongside the photographs I highlight which of these policies affects each family.

“Ariella Azoulay believes it is our obligation to act when we see photographs of others in pain.

“And these families are enduring what John Berger once called the pain of the world – that of living with no money.

“Once you have seen the photographs you can act by seeking to remove the policies this government utilises in its war on the poor.”

Dave is still very thin. He can fit into trousers he left school in due to the malnutrition he endured when he was sanctioned twice in 2014 © Les Monaghan

Fundamental changes

For Monaghan, as he took this deeply personal journey into people’s homes the project began to evolve into something overtly political.

“This wasn’t motivated by politics but then I was sitting in people’s living rooms and finding out why they were destitute.

“They were all destitute because of policies that have come in since 2010.”

Each of the photographs is accompanied by the story of those pictured. Many of them mention sanctions – where claimant’s benefit payments are suspended for a period of time if they fail to complete certain activities.

Monaghan speaks about people who have paid their dues all their lives but have been left financially crippled by policies like the bedroom tax and changes to tax credits.

Crucially, more than half of the families he worked with were working yet still living in poverty.

It led him to believe the only way to improve things was a change in government and a complete overhaul of existing policies.

“If this is how we treat the poor, how do we treat the elderly, or the sick or the disabled?”

Dave, January 5, 2017 © Les Monaghan

Destitution in the UK 2018

Destitution in the UK 2018 looks at the factors pushing people into destitution as well as solutions to the problem.

It found more than 1.5 million people in the UK were ‘pushed into destitution’ last year – a figure which does not surprise Monaghan.

“I had already been saying for a while it is 1.5 million. Because of course there have been no policies which have made things better since the last report.

“It is like with universal credit, people are being told ‘you are going to have no money for four to eight weeks’. It is called the breadline for a reason. Effectively you are saying just hang onto that cliff for four weeks without dying and we will give you some money.”

Destitution in the UK 2018 highlights three key tasks to protect people from destitution and support those already there.

It calls on the UK government to:

  • End the freeze on working-age benefits so they keep up with the cost of essentials
  • Change the use of sanctions within Universal Credit so people are not left ‘destitute by design’
  • Review the total amount of debt that can be ‘clawed back’ from people receiving benefits
Relative Poverty
Dave, March 7, 2017 © Les Monaghan

Find out more

Relative Poverty is funded by public donation, Healthwatch Doncaster and union donations.

The project can be viewed at

A summary and copy of the full Destitution in the UK 2018 report can be downloaded here.

Main image: Amount of money Dave had on 28 November 2016, Balby, Doncaster © Les Monaghan

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