Photographers have often used “work” as a subject. The American photographer Lewis Hine, for example, campaigned against child labour at the beginning of the 20th century before, years later, celebrating the men who constructed the Empire State Building. In prewar Germany, the great August Sander made portraits of every type of worker he could find.
Even today, many photography colleges set “man/woman at work” as an early project, asking students to describe a particular job through a single picture. This is much more difficult than it may sound; a photograph might superficially illustrate a process, even aestheticise it, but it struggles to show toil, danger, heat, cold, boredom – or even skill. Instead it exposes the inadequacies of the medium: what it cannot do.
That said, when I learnt I’d be photographing in the Bombardier train factory in Derby, I was excited. Not because I have a peculiar affection for engines (I don’t) but because it sounded like an interesting place to see.
I began by visiting the great photographic archive held at the National Railway Museum in York. Its collection of images of the Derby Works (as it was then called) show, in epic scale and detail, a dark and grimy Victorian world of steam engines. Great steel monsters are surrounded by an army of tiny, ant-like men.
Starting with the archive was a mistake. I knew the modern site wouldn’t look the same but I was still a little disappointed to discover how clean and tidy it actually was. When times are good (and they aren’t always), the factory in Derby produces approximately one train every day.
The production line is long and slow-moving; it’s certainly not spectacular. So, as well as trying to make pictures, we made recordings of schmaltzy, girlie pop music booming out of greasy, paint-spattered radios turned up far too loud, incongruous in such a male-dominated space. They will add a layer of sound to the pictures when they are used in the exhibition.
My last two days were spent at Nissan, in Sunderland – the biggest car plant in Europe. Now this was spectacular but, again, my camera failed to get anywhere near the real experience. Moreover, what my photographs don’t say is that I liked these people and was grateful for their friendly openness and willingness to be photographed. I became a little wiser about the intricacies of making trains or cars, but not very much. All I can ever do is try to make pictures I want to look at. It’s enough for me.
Other photographers include Martin Parr, Stuart Franklin, Jonas Bendiksen, Peter Marlow, Chris Steele-Perkins, David Hurn, Alessandra Sanguinetti. Peter Marsh, the FT’s former manufacturing editor, introduces the issue