Social Media

Book of the Week: Selected by Christopher J Johnson

Book Review Byker Photographs by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson "I bet you’ve got a favorite spot near your place if you live in a city..."

Byker By Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.
Photographs by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2022. 160 pp., 140 Tri-tone Plates, 10¼x11½".

I bet you’ve got a favorite spot near your place if you live in a city. Maybe it’s a bar or a café or a good friend’s front porch. Maybe it’s a table in the park where you go to play chess or cards or sit across from a familiar face and say Hmmmm to each other over a shared preference in newspapers or events papers or a monthly magazine. Maybe it’s a kitchen garden. Maybe it’s where your kid performs alongside other, familiar neighborhood kids, in a school or public amphitheater. But you’ve got one, a favorite place you can walk to, where you expect a certain kind of air to be breathed and a certain kind of sunlight to warm you and familiar people to be seen. Imagine that place one day didn’t exist, not only did it not exist, but also the front door you set out from, the walk you walked — imagine those didn’t exist either. This is the pretext, the hook and the tragedy of Byker by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.

The book covers a community in Newcastle that was sold for wholesale redevelopment; meaning it was all knocked down and wiped away and then rebuilt as something fresh, newly peopled, more modern, more economically span. For so many of us this idea of sudden, mass and wholesale relocation is a terrifying, but far-off-seeming thing. We don’t wake in our beds and stare at the ceiling and think that one day soon this waking view will be inaccessible, a total impossibility of time and space and sight — something lost to all future experience. Instead we think of our homes and the places we shop and the structures and the parks where we assemble community to be lasting. But that’s just our privilege assuring us that our lives are sound, placid, something we can cast a bet on; and, should we leave a house behind or if a store changes hands, that people will yet reside there, shop there, share their vacation stories and heartbreaks and whimsical asides among those structures. Well, don’t be so sure.

gives a great account of the people who lived there. Like Svetlana Alexievich in any number of her amazing historical documents, we are given the voices of the people themselves. No smart questions. No direct understanding of what prompted them into voice. Just their pure, unadulterated experiences of their beloved community, both joyous and sad and sometimes simply about work or facts or how one preferred to eat their dinner in front of the TV. The effect of this is so unignorably effective. The voices of Byker’s residents sound like our voices. Like any voices. They have dreams, regrets, sadnesses that follow them like shadows: 

Some excerpts…

“Our Dolly’s never seen him since he left her, twenty years ago. You wonder… she used to believe everything he said, and she used to think he would come back one day. She would put out his slippers beside the fire.

“Between me and you I think she would have him back.”

“A proper little grave. I used to go and visit it, but I could hear him cry, so I stopped going.”

“Creepin’ arse little bugger! Not the build to even fight, ye bugger.”

“I’m a pensioner now. I’m better off than I have been in me life. Same with the other pensioners here – you never hear one say they are hard up. Of course, if you want beer, you want cigarettes and Bingo, well you can’t have everything.”

What might stand out immediately is that these are sensitive people sharing openly and without fear. They trusted Konttinen, their longtime neighbor, in relating these stories. And she, obligingly, allowed them to talk about anything they liked, it seems — so long as it was a tale of the neighborhood. In Byker these interviews and scraps of interviews are shared alongside images of people who are not necessarily those whose words you are reading. But, it stands out that these people were talking to someone they trusted and that’s what makes the material honest and startling relatable. When paired with the pictures you see a community of people who have their hardships, but who also get a lot of joy out of their lives and their community. If you can imagine the movie Bambi ending with the death of Bambi’s mother, that’s a bit what this book is like; because engaging with it you know what looms in the future for these speakers.

Baring in mind that Byker is a reprint, I thought some of the images could have been printed better, but then I don’t know the genesis of them; perhaps they were always this way (I haven’t seen a first edition) or else time took a toll on them, who knows. It doesn’t matter. All the images are great and the sharper images are just fantastic. The work is squarely in the style of British Documentary Photography, so if you like Chris Killip or Homer Sykes, you’ll definitely like this. But if you like stories that are difficult but need to be heard; if you, like me, are always hoping to open into someone more understanding, more helpful to those around you and more able to express your sympathy, then this is crucial reading. So is Alexievich. Don’t hesitate on this one. Some books are reprinted for a reason, while others languish for a reason. Byker is a worthy document, not just in photobook scholarship, but as a project for and about us all. A totally-true parable; and one, perhaps, with greater urgency now than when it first was published.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

Christopher J Johnson is the recipient of The Mountains West Poetry Series first book publication prize (2016). He has written on photobooks since 2012, and has been a bookseller since 2008. He is currently the manager of photo-eye Bookstore.