How much can a photograph of home convey? What lies beyond the banal objects, habits and routines that litter our everyday space? Rather a lot actually, claims Home Sweet Home 1970-2018: The British Home, A Political History, a sweeping exhibition on view at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles. The show includes thirty artists working across different generations, who are brought together to dissect and peruse the culture, society and politics of a few decades of recent British history. And the group is diverse. We see some household names, some lesser-known gems; some British, some foreign; some committed documentarians, and others transforming domestic space into something more surreal and unfamiliar. Yet, all are united in their captivation by the intimate, private space that we call ‘home.’

Untitled, from the series “Something like a Nest”, 2014 © Andy Sewell

Would an exhibition hinged so tightly on the domestic space have worked for other cultures? With its quaint and twee tone, the title of the exhibition instantly conjures up the pride and attachment that British citizens have to their homes. On a more serious note, it hints at the role it plays in determining their identity and relationship to wider society. It was, after all, the English that coined the words ‘comfort’ and ‘comfortable’, which the exhibition text tells us were imported into the French language because they expressed so succinctly the link between wellbeing and our private interiors. And all the better that this survey—which is sensitive, wry, heartbreaking and confronting all at once—is undertaken with a little distance from across the Channel, headed by the watchful eye of French curator Isa Bonnet.

In capturing this personal, domestic space from so many perspectives, the exhibition weaves the individual back into the collective, pointing to the collision of dreams, aspirations and realities that defined each era in recent British history. We journey from the dredges of a utopian post-war society through to the bleak extremes of the Thatcher era, where class and race are examined under the microscope, ending with the relentless question mark of Brexit, that since 2016 has cast an ambiguous cloud over the future. Seen together, the minutiae of each ‘home’ becomes part of a wider conversation about the shifting sands of national identity.

From the series “Housing Estates, Set 4”, 1985 © Stephen McCoy

Photographically speaking, the shift from outside to inside, from street photography to a fascination with the interior, coincided with the rise of a virtuous way of life that centered on the home. A growth in prosperity, consumption and the television coupled with middle class values and a desire to keep people off the streets and out of the pub positioned the home as the hub of all activities. Documenting the preened and eerily deserted atmosphere of suburbia, Stephen McCoy’s pristine gardens speak to the public face of the domestic space and the rise of gardening as a popular national hobby.

Even once inside the personal space, objects, decoration and interior design take on a wider social meaning than at first glance. A handful of the photographers on view picture people in their surroundings, rather formally as if their sitters are conscious of what the image will say about their social standing. Exposing the link between the interior and its occupants’ ‘social biography’, we are led to question: Is there such a thing as individual taste, or do our choices illustrate our belonging to a certain culture or class? From John Myers’ awkward, self-conscious middle class portraits to Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr’s collaborative series on working class families photographed in their living rooms in June Street in Salford, patterns of style and a sense of pride attached to the decor and furnishings of each interior emerge in these staged vignettes.

Mr and Mrs Seabourne, from the series “Middle England,” 1973 © John Myers

The performance of presenting oneself in one’s space takes on epic new dimensions in Karen Knorr’s infamous Belgravia portraits. A satirical play between meticulously-coiffured interiors (and subjects!) and tart captions, Knorr’s portraits of the rich and powerful capture the indulgent lifestyles and values of a privileged minority during the early years of Thatcherite Britain. This series in particular draws into focus the hardship that others faced at a time when poverty was soaring, with more documentary-style photography such as Anthony Haughley’s jarring pictures of life in the Ballymun tower blocks and David Moore’s Pictures from the Real World.

From the series “Home”, 1992 © Anthony Haughey

Another room is dedicated to those excluded from the thorny question of national identity, paying testimony to and celebrating the lives of those living on the margins who struggled to be accepted by British society. Far from the dreams of prosperity and belonging that the travellers of the Empire Windrush—a ship sailing from Jamaica, full of passengers to aid in the post-war reconstruction of Britain—held close as they unboarded near London in 1948, the first waves of West Indian immigrants of this new, multicultural society faced racism and discrimination on a daily basis.

Neil Kenlock, who moved to London from Jamaica in 1963 to join his parents, shows smiling families in his local community dressed up and posing in their immaculate front rooms—images that would be sent back to relatives in the Caribbean as testimony of the success of their new life in Britain. Magda Segal’s London at Home, made in the nineties, documents the diversity of the capital’s inhabitants, while Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s Byker Revisited collaborative portraits trace the stories the rooms and architecture tell about the residents of the Byker Wall Estate, which she first photographed in the 1970s.

Nancy-Jade, from the series “Byker Revisited”, 2005. © Liisa-Sirkka Konttinen. Courtesy of Amber/L. Parker Stephenson

Does a home still feel and look like home when we can’t see its occupants? The final spaces of Home Sweet Home challenge our associations with the term. Artists like Clare Strand and Eva Stenram abstract the confined space of the house, transfiguring it into a stage for the weird and eerie, their black and white pictures hinting at vaguely disturbing narratives, while Juno Calypso and her alter ego Joyce tap into the gendered domestic space of the kitchen in her surreal and probing self-portrait.

Control Order House, _MG_2850.jpg, 2011 © Edmund Clark

The title of the exhibition and the idea of “Home Sweet Home” as a private and safe shelter from the outside world—no matter how simple or lavish it may be—is fully dismantled by Edmund Clark and his project Control Order House. Displayed as a room fly-pasted with hundreds of digital snapshots that document a ‘control order house’—a domicile used to detain individuals suspected of terrorism. The obsessive attention to detail in the images, mundane and nondescript as they are, give a chilling insight into a life lived under surveillance.

Editor’s note: Home Sweet Home is on view at Rencontres d’Arles until the 22nd of September.