The sea, the coast and port towns have always interested me. Some of my early photographs were taken in La Libertad, El Salvador, of banana boats being unloaded. I was 19. Three years later, as a student in 1978, I documented the switch from general cargo to container shipping, crossing to New York on the SS Atlantic Conveyor with Captain Ian North DSC. Four years later “Captain Birdseye”, as he was known, was one of 12 crew members of the requisitioned container ship to perish after an Exocet missile attack during the Falklands war.
In 1986, I witnessed the last ship to be launched on the River Tees by the Smith’s Dock Company before it folded in 1987. The workforce and their families stood behind ropes on the quayside, gazing up at the bunting. The moment passed with so little note that the event failed to make the evening news. Smith’s had built the second world war anti-submarine convoys described in Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea. Later, I documented the break-up of the Tyne shipyards and those on the Clyde. So, offered the chance to document British industry in 2013, I opted for shipbuilding. The only significant sector remaining in Britain is government-funded and the biggest project by far, employing 10,000 people and costing more than £6bn, is the Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) aircraft carrier construction at Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth. Arriving there earlier this year I found a world of predominantly white men toiling away night and day in a dry dock on a huge ship, then retiring to shoddy, pebble-dashed houses above the yard. It was a scene from the 1950s: men in blue overalls coming and going together in large groups to work, to eat or to rest.
It was most interesting to photograph at night, since much of the work was happening on the flight deck, theatrically lit and visible from the dizzy height of an overhead Goliath crane. From there, at least, the ship looked like an aircraft carrier. The size of the vessel was always a challenge to convey: small figures painting the hull gave a sense of scale. My abiding memory will always be of the disparity between the vessel as work camp – all steel, air and shuttered cable – and its future role after 2017 as a warship, carrying fighter jets off to battle.
Other photographers include Martin Parr, Jonas Bendiksen, Mark Power, Peter Marlow, Chris Steele-Perkins, David Hurn, Alessandra Sanguinetti. Peter Marsh, the FT’s former manufacturing editor, introduces the issue