Mass Observation was founded in 1937 with the aim of creating an "anthropology" of the British people through artistic projects and the recording of anecdotal evidence. As expected from this particular gallery, the exhibition predominantly focuses on the role photography has played in the collective's activities, but its scope goes far beyond just the printed image. With notes, drawings, slideshows and books, the show is surprisingly vast for a relatively small space, and there is a wealth of information to absorb.

The exhibition begins, appropriately enough, at the very beginning, with documentary photographs taken during Mass Observation's founding years. Before reaching the photographs, there is first an essay of an introduction to tackle. There's a huge amount of background information to digest in this exhibition but, as few would have any prior knowledge of Mass Observation, it's necessary and insightful. The extensive explanations continue throughout the show and you'd be forgiven for not reading every word, but they do help with the appreciation of all the other objects on offer. The snippets of eavesdropped conversations are especially interesting, giving an extra dimension of life and personality to the characters within the silent static photographs.   

The exhibition is arranged chronologically, with items grouped into their original individual projects. The show spans two floors of the gallery, with the physical divide conveniently used to represent the changing attitudes that occurred within the Mass Observation approach. During the early war years an army of anonymous spies focused on recording the activities of, mainly, the working classes. Amongst these spies was Humphrey Spender, whose Bolton-based Worktown photography project is the perfect example of an outsider infiltrating and documenting an unfamiliar community. So conscious was he of his outsider status, we are told, that he even limited how much he spoke for fear of his different accent being noticed.

Although not the greatest examples of documentary photography, these scenes provide a window into a quaint and charming bygone era. There is a lot of humour too, highlighting the British wit with touches of the surreal amongst the more mundane. Many of the themes, such as the street graffiti in the title photograph This is Your Photo (1937) are familiar favourites of contemporary photographers too, but it's the capturing of curiosities that no longer feature in today's society, such as Spender's Working Men's Hair Specialist (1937) that really intrigue.   

The second higher floor of the gallery contains later projects, mostly from the 1980s. In contrast, these examples are far more focused on the individual, with the observational eye aimed inwards. In the later years the social experiment experienced a relaunch and volunteers (unfortunately biased towards an older female sample) were now tasked with recording information, primarily about themselves. Instead of surreptitious photographs of people at work and play, this section of the exhibition houses mostly written accounts of possessions and property. Meticulous cataloguing of wedding gifts and reports of the contents of homes seem indicative of the decade's infamous obsession with selfish consumerism. The endless handwritten documents are a little overwhelming and not nearly as easy to engage with as the photographic elements, but they are highly personal – consequently this exhibition ends up being as much about those people behind the contributions as the information they offered.

Mass Observation is also dedicated to the preservation of the ephemeral. Fleeting conversations in pubs, quick kisses at the seaside, and naive chalk graffiti have been recorded, though they are usually destined to be forgotten. There is a lot of paranoia currently surrounding the medium of photography and its potential for unwanted surveillance; however, here the Big Brother-style invasion of privacy is celebrated. Without these intrusions, such insights into British culture would not exist. This issue is subtly addressed in a small display about the restrictions imposed on photography during the Second World War. It's a delicate nod to a much greater topic that could have played a larger role in the debate surrounding Mass Observation.  

This Is Your Photo is a cornucopia of nostalgia and historical charm. There is so much to see and read that is takes a deceptively long time to navigate. As is the case with most photography exhibitions, the prints could benefit from the use of less reflective glass, but overall this is a well presented, pleasantly patriotic show, well worth a cursory glance if not the in-depth study that it really requires.

Mass Observation: This is Your Photo, at Photographers' GalleryStacey Harbour's review of Mass Observation: This is Your Photo at The Photographers' Gallery.3