Pagy Wicks: Really loved Over the Water. How did you come about deciding to document the differences in economic wealth in Liverpool and Birkenhead? What fueled you to create the photobook?
Ben Milne: Thank you. Well technically I was fuelled by my university deadline, haha, but really I wanted to make a piece of work that had some familiarity and discoverability to it. I was born in Birkenhead then lived within ten miles of it growing up so it just felt right to learn more about an area that is close to home rather than try and tell a story about wealth in a community that hasn’t really got a place in my soul.
PW: Ah right, so this was for university initially? I really like that last line, deciding to document a place that has a relationship with you the photographer. What is your relationship with Liverpool? Did your inside perspective reveal any new insights into the wealth divide, or even Birkenhead in general, you maybe hadn't noticed before?
BM: Yeah I made the work for my final major project. My relationship with Liverpool is quite simple, it’s just a place that is fun to visit but in terms of the project it’s got a very visible contrast within such a short space, that being the river Mersey. That contrast is down to a few things, job opportunities, scale, the city status itself but EU funding plays a huge role. Liverpool’s waterfront (as viewed from Birkenhead) was hugely funded by the European Union, while Birkenhead gets some funding it just doesn’t carry the same weight.
Having a little inside perspective was revealing in the sense that it seemed to allow people to talk more openly with me, not so much about their own current opinion on Birkenhead but more of the pathos they have towards the past. The lady pictured behind the bar is 72 years old and she recounted with a sense of joy about “the good old days” when the streets were full and the Mersey ferry was not just a tourist vessel but a business commute, for many. Things move on, that’s a given, but it feels as if a replacement never came for Birkenhead. It’s almost been forgotten.
PW: The image of the old woman behind the bar is almost poetic, it's one of the very memorable images from the book for me. What sort of questions do you hope arise from a reader about the distribution of wealth illustrated by the juxtaposition of Birkenhead and Liverpool? Particularly in relation to the UK leaving the EU?
BM: Thanks very much, I like that one too. She was cool.
I hope it raises questions about the importance of communities that experience loss and the need for them to be rebuilt in some sort of beneficial way. The model is literally there, 1000 metres away in Liverpool. Not to say that Liverpool doesn’t have its own issues with community neglect but in terms of two waterfronts the importance of European funding is there in the Albert Dock, not only to see but to enjoy. The fact that Birkenhead voted to Leave is no surprise as it’s not really benefited from the crop. It does however highlight a possible future for the UK without the EU. Investment will have to come from alternate means and the question is will those means come? And will they ever see an interest in Birkenhead the same way the EU saw an interest in Liverpool?
PW: Thanks so much Ben, really excited to see the work develop in the future. The UK feels very divided at the moment, hopefully our conversation, between two people from either side of the coin, will spark something.
BM: Thanks very much, that was fun. It’s great what you’re doing. I look forward to reading the other interviews, especially the leave side ones, they should be interesting...