“THE past is a foreign country,” the novelist LP Hartley famously suggested. “They do things differently there.” Well, maybe Leslie, but sometimes I think that’s up for argument.

Last weekend I popped into the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh. A new exhibition, Cafe Royal Books, has recently opened. It's a retrospective celebrating an independent publisher that has spent the last decade (and counting) producing weekly publications devoted to postwar British photography. These little zines, 600 of them - now all on display and available to browse at Stills - offer a comprehensive vision of the UK in recent decades; from working men's clubs to London nightlife and from hippies at Stonehenge to Nelson Mandela in Glasgow.

Gathered together all these images fight for attention. It’s really quite an electrifying exhibition. Noisy and full of life.

Coming away from Stills it struck me that all the best exhibitions I’ve seen this year have been photography exhibitions. And all fall under the heading “social documentary”.

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In Liverpool’s Walker Gallery Tom Wood’s photographs of the smeary condensation on the windows of Liverpool buses, customers at Butlin’s in Ayr and kids on chopper bikes in Dunfermline back in the 1970s felt both distant and close at the same time. A retrospective of the photographs of the late Chris Killip in the Baltic Centre in Gateshead which finished in September offered a vision of the north-east of England in the 1980s that could have passed for the 1880s. All our yesterdays pinned and mounted on a wall.

This weekend sees the opening of a new film from the Portobello-based director Paul Sng about the life and work of Newcastle photographer Tish Murtha. It is a thrilling, heartbreaking film about a great overlooked talent who is only now getting her due. Murtha caught the impact of deindustrialisation and Thatcherism as it impacted on her family, friends and community in striking black and white images.

Murtha, like Wood and Killip, indeed like many of the photographers whose work is on show at the Stills, all offer a challenging vision of the country we lived in. Their images are full of humanity and empathy but often also document lack and want. This is the way we were, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

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But there’s a danger that we look at these images, see the black and white grain of so many of them, and conclude confidently that that was then. That the deprivation they often depict can now be safely stored away as a thing of the past.

If only. This winter the Trussell Trust is expecting to provide more than one million emergency food parcels. In September the charity reported that half of working families claiming Universal Credit had run out of food in the previous month, while a third had struggled to heat their homes. And, according to the Trust, more than 14 million people now live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, last month the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that in Scotland more than one million people - around a quarter of them children - live in poverty, with nearly half (490,000) in what it calls “deep poverty”. If my dodgy maths is right that means that one in 11 of us in this country are really struggling. Tie that in with a housing crisis and a cost of living crisis and the impact is obvious. It’s a factor in why Scotland has the largest number of deaths as a result of drug misuse in Europe. Poverty kills. The Scottish Government has much work to do.

I write this amid the fallout from the Supreme Court ruling declaring the Westminster Government’s Rwanda plan unlawful. An unworkable, illegal fantasy played out at exorbitant cost by a Government far more interested in chasing headlines than helping its neediest citizens.

The reality is the world captured by the likes of Tish Murtha, Chris Killip and Tom Wood is really not so very far away. The clothes, the surroundings, the faces may have changed, but the problems remain. When it comes to those who most need our help the past is not foreign enough.