“Photography came into my life at a time when my sense of self and my place in the world was fast disappearing. Fortunately, when I picked up the camera, I felt better, people looked and responded to me differently. I thought, here at last, this is something I can do that is worthwhile and good.” The time was the 1970s and George Plemper was confronting himself for the first time with the unforgiving reality of teaching. Born in 1950 in Sunderland, in the North East of England, Plemper had an idyllic childhood, full of wonder and love, spent exploring the nearby Hylton Dene woodland and dreaming to become an industrial chemist. Instead, influenced by the idealism of his time, he decided to follow the steps of Privet Hedges, the caring school teacher trying to unleash the potential he sees in his rowdy pupils in the British comedy Please Sir! “I was silly. Looking back I think that I realised as early as the first few weeks of my teaching practice that the classroom was not a place for me and by the end of my first term I finally understood that teaching was a job, a profession, not a calling. This was not how it was meant to be. Mere words are insufficient to describe the desolation and isolation that I felt when I found myself putting on a mask and playing the role of a stern school teacher simply to survive the next hour and ten minutes in the classroom.”
At this point, Plemper picked up a camera – an instrument to make his lessons more interesting, taking pictures of books to show to his pupils and, at the same time, a way to boost their and his own confidence. Gradually, he started to compile a visual diary of his daily, personal experience as a working-class teacher, accumulating hundreds of portraits of schoolchildren in the classroom and in the school yard, capturing their pensive, inquisitive, insecure but also impudent and cheerful gazes so naturally that they seem to come to life through the black and white shots, many of them taken in the two years he spent at Riverside School in London’s Thamesmead. Plemper worked two jobs for four years to finance his photographic project, which he hoped could document the face of Britain in the 20th century, but never got the Arts Council Grant he needed to complete it. “When my contract ended in the September of 1982 I took this as a sign that I should stop messing around and follow my mother’s advice, which was to get myself a proper job and find a nice girl – which I did.” Before locking pictures and negatives away, he managed to exhibit them only once, in 1979, with the title Lost at School, which was unfortunately interpreted a bit too literally by many. Libraries and council offices refused to advertise it, assuming that the title was referencing to the kids and unconcerned by the fact that Plemper was, in fact, talking about his disillusionment as a school teacher. This reaction and the Arts Council indifference only deepened his impression of being an outsider among his contemporaries working on social and documentary photography.

“Oh well. It has only taken thirty seven years for someone to tell me that they “get it!” I knew it was a brilliant idea.” Plemper is talking about his first exhibition’s title, but the claim sounds equally true for his pictures, which have started to resurface only in 2007, along with his renewed interest in photography. Thanks to Flickr and the power of online sharing, since then they have been re-blogged and liked multiple times on different social media platforms, catching the attention of many publications. Now that their striking powerfulness has been finally acknowledged, as well as their importance as an undiluted and unique documentation of recent British history, what is Plemper focusing on? And how does he judge his past photographic work?
George Plemper Metalmagazine 8.jpg
Given the amount and quality of the pictures in your archive, photography doesn’t seem to be just a hobby for you, but it hasn’t been your career either. What does it represent for you?
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.” William Blake, Auguries of Innocence. Ever since the technologies associated with photography emerged around 1839, photography has been burdened by the naive belief that the camera is an objective recorder of the “reality” of the physical world outside of us. I think this is foolishness, if we look deeply we can see that the world as it manifests to us is totally dependent on the fact that we are looking at it. (Apparently this has been proven scientifically, it is not just some idle fantasy).
To answer your question, the majority of my photographs are little more than scribblings in a notebook but, occasionally, some of them take me somewhere else and, desperately, I would like to think that they take others somewhere else too. With the passage of time I have come to think of my photographs as visual (Zen-like) poems. Poetry in a documentary setting, now there’s a thing.
How did your students react? Was it easy for them to be photographed?
Some pupils found it easy to be photographed, for others it was more difficult and I had to work hard to gain their trust. I have two photographs of a young girl who was very shy, and judging by the comments of former Riverside pupils, was being bullied remorselessly. The first picture shows a young girl who’s ill at ease in the school environment and the second picture shows a beautiful young girl starting to believe in herself. I like to think, and hope, that I played some part in this but the truth is I just can’t remember whether I did or not. It is more likely that the young girl’s new found sense of confidence was the result of the love of her parents and the care and attention given to her by her Riverside School House teachers and pastoral staff. I just happened to notice and tried to reinforce this tangible sense of well-being by giving her a nice photograph of herself.
Thamesmead, in South East London, was built as a town of the future, a brutalist dream of walkaways and social housing that crashed not long after its construction. What was the reality of it when you lived and taught there in the late 1970s?
Well, I agree with you that Thamesmead was built as a town of the future. I have often heard the term “brutal” used to describe Thamesmead but this was not my experience (and not the experience of everyone, I often hear from some of my former pupils who still live there happily). I came from a ‘50s council housing estate in Sunderland. Everything is relative. In my early days in Thamesmead I found it to be an exciting and exhilarating place to live. I had community central heating and hot water, the standard of housing seemed good to me. Prior to moving to Thamesmead I lived in a bed-sit, one of many above a small corner shop in Blackheath. In the dull light of the street lamps, I used to watch mice climb up and down the electric cord to the fridge, and in the summer I resorted to leaving the window open to let a local cat deal with them. Thamesmead was definitely a step up, it reminded me of the towns and cities I read about in science fiction comics. As time passed I became more withdrawn (this is not to say I was alone, I had quite a lot of teaching friends who were very kind and welcoming) and it seemed to me that the empty white concrete architecture that lined my daily walk to Riverside School and later to Abbey Wood to catch my train was the perfect metaphor for my life and state of mind.
George Plemper Metalmagazine 13.jpg
What makes a specific person or a specific place a suitable subject for your camera?
I like to tell people that I will take pictures of paint drying if that is where I happen to be. So, in short, everyone and everywhere are suitable subjects and places for my camera. The really amazing and wonderful thing about photography is that amongst the ordinary and mundane images that make up the majority of our work, occasionally, images appear that stop us in our tracks, that take us to a different place. These photographs are little jewels.
Read about the work of the great photographers, listen to what they say and write about it: they will tell you that they have little control over the final outcome of their work. Diane Arbus, for instance, would tell people that her photographs never came out the way she expected; they were either better or worse – never as she anticipated. It is easy to dismiss her words as a sort of false modesty but the reality is she is telling the truth. The majority of photographers who claim that they control every aspect of their work are charlatans, and photographers who really do control every aspect of their work are very clever, though not necessarily insightful.
What would you say is the essence of British culture, the quintessential expression of Britishness? 
When I was very young I remember receiving my very first letter. I remember standing by the window in our front room and my mother handing me the envelope, it had a stamp on it and my name and address was written on the front:
Master George Scott Plemper
3 The Briars,
Nr Sunderland,
Co. Durham
I was so proud. This defined me, there was nothing else to say. I can still see the envelope illuminated by the side light of the window. What an incredible picture this would have made: franked postage stamp, writing on paper, smooth hands, all seen with the crystal clarity of a child’s eyes – a perfect definition of my social identity. As I got older I would continue to be identified by my place of birth and accent but I realised that I was so much more – whatever I thought I was, I was more; whatever we think of each other, I know we are more. I suppose what I am trying to say, in a long winded way, is that I do not believe that there is a quintessential essence of British culture. Britain is a changing kaleidoscope of different cultures and beliefs and long may this continue. It seems to me that documentary photographers who claim their work reflects the essence of “Britishness” resort to a repetition of empty clichés. This is of no interest to me.
“My work would be a celebration of our diversity and humanity at a period of time when our world seems to be falling apart around us.”
Is there a photograph you took that you are particularly attached to?
My thoughts on photography and my work are heavily influenced by Buddhist thought and teachings, particularly those of Thich Nhat Hanh and the beautiful simplicity of Zen poetry. I am by no means a practitioner and I would hate it if anyone thought I was suggesting this, however, Buddhism warns against attachment to people, places, things, ideas or photographs for that matter so I am tempted to pompously tell you that I have no attachment to my camera or any of my work. That would be a lie. Even after all this time I am still attached to my photographs from the ‘70s and ‘80s. There is no question in my mind that some of the photographs that I took back in the 1970s/‘80s are emotive, compelling images, both in form and content, and I know intuitively that these will stand the test of time. I believe that these photographs are very important in the context of British social documentary photography, and, as far as I know, they are the only body of social documentary photographs coming out of Britain at the time that was, so to speak, from the inside out. They are photographs that I used to challenge the existing established order, and tried to move British documentary photography away from the straight jacket of positivism, which held that only that which could be seen and described objectively/scientifically was real. How shallow and convenient and meh!
A moment in time – British Photographs 1975 onward is the title of a social documentary project you have been working on for some time now, but you mentioned you are having some difficulties in making it relevant to a 21st century audience. Could you explain what the main idea behind the project was and how you are thinking of adapting it?
It seems to me that, because paintings and photography share a two dimensional similarity in structure, there is an assumption that the two art forms can be understood in the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth, I can’t think of two more dissimilar art forms. However, we continue to try to apply the same language and theories to the art of painting and photography. One of the most destructive errors of judgement is the fallacy that to be meaningful or good, photography and a photograph must be original. This has sent photographers from all over the world off looking for the fantastic, creating more and more outrageous images – ignoring their roots and forgetting just how beautiful and horrific our everyday lives can be.
The title of this work has been unashamedly derived from the title of the work of the outstanding German photographer August Sander, who embarked on an epic documentary portrait of the German people in 1911 under the title People of the 20th Century, and as part of this project published some of his work under the title Face of Our Time in 1929. August Sander’s dream was to produce a complete physiognomy and portrait of the whole of German society and that is how his work is understood and portrayed. When I first conceived of my Moment in Time project, my intention was to adopt a similar working method, by completing a full portrait of Britain – a complete cross-section of society, only this time there would be no emphasis on physiognomy and the idea that everyone had a place and a station in life. Mine would be a simpler concept, a window and a mirror onto the streets of Britain. With the passage of time, I learned more about photography and myself. I have a recurring dream. In this dream I am always moving towards a destination but I never get there, and the harder I try, the more absurd my situation becomes and my destination gets further and further away. I learned more about Sander and that ultimately, because of the brutality and impact of the Second World War, politics and the hardships of the time, he failed in his quest and instead he achieved something far greater – he left behind a wonderful, gentle, timeless portrait of a society and the humanity of people whose world was falling apart around them. I realised that there was a great lesson for me in his work. British Photographs 1975 onward would be a celebration of our diversity and humanity at a period of time when our world seems to be falling apart around us. There would be no judgement, there would be no more running around, striving for completeness. I would slow down, be patient, look at the world as it manifests before me.
The Platform Sutra, which was written in 7th century China declares,“The complete teachings of all Buddhas –past, present and future– are to be found within the essence of every human being.’’ My project has transformed into a meditation on these words.
George Plemper Metalmagazine 1.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 7.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 5.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 9.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 10.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 6.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 12.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 2.jpg
I like this picture of Andrew, our relationship in the classroom was quite fraught and I think this picture tells me what I did not appreciate at the time – he was growing up and was every bit as unsure of himself as I was. I heard from him a few years back and he apologised for giving me a hard time. I told him that he should not have worried, if he had been nice to me then I may have stayed in teaching and that would have been a disaster for me.
George Plemper Metalmagazine 3.jpg
You asked me if I had any particular attachment to any photograph, well this picture is very important to me, it sums up everything that I was trying to tell you when answering your questions. The flaws in exposure and processing, the dust marks and the quietness of the image. I am particularly fond of this image.
George Plemper Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Eugene was a remarkable young man, I don’t think he would mind if I said that he was also lost at school. I used to worry about him, I used to think that the world had little to offer him, I thought he was unemployable. Later I learned that he was living in New York and was a renowned hairstylist with his creations gracing the covers of Vogue and Marie Claire.
George Plemper Metalmagazine 15.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 16.jpg
George Plemper Metalmagazine 17.jpg
A selection of pictures taken as I walked back and forward between Abbey Wood and Thamesmead.