In 1976, aged 20, Patricia Murtha, known to everyone as ‘Tish’ left home in Newcastle to study at the Newport School of Documentary Photography set up by Magnum Photos member David Hurn. In 1978 she returned back to the North-East and documented the “marginalized communities from the inside” just as the era of Thatcherism was beginning to take hold. As the third of ten children of Irish descent, brought up in a council house in Elswick (a western part of Newcastle bordering the river Tyne) Tish Murtha captured the lives of her friends, family and the community around her while herself on a job scheme for the unemployed.
Her first exhibition ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’, showed young people cast out of from the jazz band world for bad behaviour, but still playing the routines. Tish’s next exhibition ‘Youth Unemployment (1981)’ featured members of her own family and their friends on the streets of Elswick. The rubble and the buildings being demolished in some of the images are the Noble Street flats which had replaced streets once photographed by Jimmy Forsyth in the early sixties. The Youth Unemployment pictures by Tish were even brought up by her local MP Robert Brown during a debate highlighting the relative failure of the government’s Youth Opportunities Programme to provide meaningful work.
Brown spoke of the 15,000 people unemployed in his constituency where some wards were running at 30 to 40 per cent unemployment. “Economic depression is nothing new in Newcastle,” he quoted during the debate, “heavy industry upon which we have relied has been in decline for decades and high unemployment levels have been with us for just as long. The future looks bleak.” The MP spoke of the young photographer Tish Murtha and that she “reminds us that ‘there are barbaric and reactionary forces in our society, who will not be slow to make political capital from an embittered youth. Unemployed, bored, embittered and angry young men and women are fuel for fire’. The distressing fact is that many of today’s young unemployed are tomorrow’s adult unemployed. Ahead of them lies a life of boredom and deprivation.”
Tragically, on March 13, 2013 – the day before what would have been her 57th birthday – Tish died after suffering a sudden brain aneurysm.