RSPH and the Health Foundation have jointly unveiled a new photography commission that aims to broaden the way the  public and policy makers alike think about health and wellbeing – moving the focus from healthcare and individual responsibility, to prevention and tackling social and environmental causes of ill health.

The series of 40 images, produced by photographer Matt Writtle over the course of two months in his home town of Chesham, Buckinghamshire, follows a number of people in the town, including working class retirees and the children of Pakistani immigrants, through their daily lives in an attempt to highlight these social and environmental factors that influence the public’s health.

It has been estimated that as little as 10% of a population’s health and wellbeing is linked to access to healthcare services like the NHS. Much of the rest is linked to social and environmental factors like employment, education, housing, food and community networks. Collectively known as the social determinants of health, these factors are often largely beyond individual control, and account for much of the 19 year gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas in England.

The commission’s setting, the town of Chesham in the Chilterns, provides a microcosm of these health inequalities. While it has been ranked among the 10 healthiest places to live in England, Chiltern District also hosts a life expectancy gap of as much as nine years for men and six years for women, between its most and least affluent wards.

The photographs particularly highlight the importance of families, friends and communities in building the foundations for good health, allowing people to feel supported, included and valued, and empowering them to influence positive change.

Journalists interested in reproducing any of the images should contact Niamh McDade via email or on 0207 265 7391, to request hi-res files.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of RSPH, said: “Understanding of the ways in which social, environmental and economic factors influence health and wellbeing has been growing in recent years, and yet the political and media dialogue around health in the UK remains stubbornly fixated on the NHS and personal lifestyle choice.

“We now understand that our health and wellbeing is fundamentally shaped by the social and economic circumstances in which we live. This beautiful series of images from Matt Writtle shine a light on these influences, and should encourage us all – including government and wider society – to reprioritise and do more to collectively create the surroundings that make people healthy. It is only by doing so that we will be able to reduce the burden of ill health in a way that is long-term, sustainable and equitable.”

Jo Bibby, Director of Strategy at The Health Foundation, added: “The nation’s health and wellbeing is our biggest asset – for individuals and society. And yet too often the focus is on treating people once they become ill, rather than investing in what makes us healthy.

“The healthy lives photo commission show the diverse ways in which the environments where we live, work and play shape our opportunities to be healthy. It also shows how some people don’t have the same opportunities to be healthy as others. We hope the photos stimulate debate and show the importance of giving people opportunities to live healthier lives.”

The photographer, Matt Writtle, said: “As a documentary photographer I am fascinated by life, it’s culture, behaviours and evolution. I love observing the way people act and how they adapt to the variety of challenges and opportunities they face on a daily basis. When I was contacted by the RSPH and the Health Foundation to apply for this commission, I knew immediately it was something I wanted to do because I firmly believe that good health is essential to a happy and prosperous life. What inspired me to pick up my camera was to capture how we deal with the circumstances we’re dealt: what is it about the environment in which we live that restricts or enables us to live a healthy life?

“Having spent nearly four months documenting the people of Chesham, I discovered that what empowers people to strive for a healthy life ranges from education and wealth to the environment and opportunity they experience. What inspires them is help and advice at grassroots level from groups already in the community, rather than policies imposed from the top down.”

The Health Foundation 

The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.

Our aim is a healthier population, supported by high quality health care that can be equitably accessed. From giving grants to those working at the front line to carrying out research and policy analysis, we shine a light on how to make successful change happen. We use what we know works on the ground to inform effective policymaking and vice versa.

We believe good health and health care are key to a flourishing society. Through sharing what we learn, collaborating with others and building people’s skills and knowledge, we aim to make a difference and contribute to a healthier population. Visit our website.

Matt Writtle

Matt Writtle is a documentary and portrait photographer from the Black Country, now based in London. His practice is focused on giving a voice to the person who is rarely heard or revealing a world that we never knew existed, using his camera to capture life’s nuances and document its cultural change and evolution, in an honest, arresting and insightful way.

Since 1992, he has travelled the world documenting news, social and humanitarian issues for various national and international publications such as The Times, London Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, New York Times, along with a number of commercial, charitable and PR organisations. He is also represented by eyevine photographic library.