A Light Touch – Photographs by Marcia Fairbairn

To a 21st century audience, the initiative by the Daily Mail in organizing an airlift of refugees to Britain in the 1970s in support of the Ockenden Venture appears to be strikingly incongruous, a seemingly momentary aberration in the history of the resolutely right-wing conservative British newspaper, well-known for its views on immigration.  This extract from the history of the Ockenden Venture (now known as Ockenden International) is an abrupt reminder of how far society, its attitudes and the political climate in Britain have changed during the intervening years.  The Ockenden Venture was established by three remarkable and determined British women in the 1950s to assist displaced people and it was a meeting with one of the founders Joyce Pearce in the late 1960s that resulted in Marcia Fairbairn’s involvement with the organization.  For Fairbairn, what at first was a hobby later became a means of earning a living through photography assignments ranging from portraits, book covers, and the occasional wedding in addition to her work in India and Vietnam for the Ockenden Venture.  From the thousands of photographs that Fairbairn took during her lifetime, her photographs of Tibetan exiles in northern India and Vietnamese refugees in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) were amongst the images that she chose to exhibit to the Royal Photographic Society as representative of her achievements, alongside photographs of life in post-War Europe.

On an initial viewing of Fairbairn’s photographs there are inevitable comparisons with the photographs of Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson in the way that Fairbairn takes people as her main subject using a strong sense of composition.  Upon subsequent examination, it is possible to discern a distinct consensus between the photographer and her subjects based on mutual respect which somehow avoids overt familiarity.  This characteristic reserve within Fairbairn’s photographs is apparent in the equanimity of her approach to her work that neither sensationalized nor overtly sentimentalized her subject matter despite the sometimes distressing circumstances surrounding the making of the photograph.  A newspaper clipping from the Hampshire newspaper The Herald, dated Friday November 16th 1979 in which Fairbairn discusses her work for the Ockenden Venture, reveals her strength of character and resolve despite the often difficult conditions around her: 

If you are going to get any work done of a practical nature, you must not let your emotions stand in your way.  You may feel dreadful underneath but it can’t be allowed to affect what you’re doing.[i]

The same qualities of strength and stoic resolve are evident amongst the people that she photographed.  For example, in an untitled photograph dated 1973 we are presented with a scene from Fairbairn’s trip to Saigon.  In this unsentimental portrait of childhood, a child stands within the makeshift orderliness of a street market, cradling a young bird in her hands, not as a pet, but as a commodity. The girl’s expression is matter-of-fact, a momentary pause in her working day.  A short distance away, the encounter between Fairbairn and the girl is observed benignly by stallholders minding tins of unlabelled goods and containers of fresh fish.  Instead of provoking pity or disapproval Fairbairn’s photograph acknowledges the practical realities of life where children work to support the family.  In another of Fairbairn’s photographs depicting children, India, Mussoorie: 1969. Tibetan Refugee, a young boy is photographed engaged in the act of putting on his shoes which have been selected from a neat row behind him.  The photograph appears to have been taken within the closed environment of a courtyard or perhaps an entranceway to a school.  The child consciously looks away towards some unseen figure, avoiding the photographer’s gaze.  The charm of the photograph is counterbalanced by both the fact that it was taken in Mussoorie, the first site of the Tibetan Government in Exile and our knowledge of the events of the late 1950s which led to the creation of this community of refugees.

Closer to home, Fairbairn’s work takes on a more lighthearted tone.  In Piece of Cake, France 1974, three bakery workers are observed engaging in an animated exchange.  Only the bakery manager betrays the presence of the camera while the shop assistant and the young baker flirt relentlessly.  Elsewhere in France, in Paris, 1970, the photographer is seemingly unobserved as she photographs a solitary child sliding down a banister, the irresistible perspective created by the railings, steps and shadows drawing the eye deeper into the scene.  In Kite Flying, 1973, Fairbairn’s singular acknowledgement of the resourcefulness of childhood, two children amuse themselves using a homemade kite made from the simplest of materials, a can, string and a streamer.  From the confines of the makeshift playground created amongst high rise buildings and laundry lines, one child stretches gracefully to catch the wind as his companion, concealed but for his head, looks on.

Nearly four decades on from their creation, the attraction that Fairbairn’s photographs still hold for us today can be attributed to the unique power of the photograph that, in the words of Susan Sontag, ‘keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.’[ii]  Our appreciation of these ‘instants’ some forty years on is informed by a combination of personal experience and knowledge, whether direct or second hand through newspapers, films and the internet.  Just as the history of the Ockenden Venture offers a striking yardstick of change, through Fairbairn’s photographs we are made to recall countries which no longer exist, as in the example of Jugoslavia. Trogir Tourist in Cathedral, 1971, or we are keenly reminded of conflicts which remain unresolved, notably through Fairbairn’s 1973 portrait of the Dalai Lama.  Amongst the thousands of photographs that she produced during her lifetime, Fairbairn singled out these images as her particular favourites.  Forty years later, these photographs have become Fairbairn’s legacy, photographs which compel us to consider our past and present circumstances and the unpredictable dynamics of change.


Davina Lee

© Davina Lee 2008 

[i] ‘Portrait Photographer Committed to Refugees’, Lulu Appleton, The Herald, Friday November 16th 1979

[ii] On Photography, Susan Sontag P.111

Published in the Journal of the Royal Photographic Society, June 2008