These pictures were made as part of Magnum's Open for Business, which sought to challenge the widely held belief that the UK doesn't make anything anymore. Nine photographers were commissioned to collectively visit over 100 businesses, large and small, across the country.
Here is the text I wrote to accompany a special Financial Times issue about the project:
Photographers have often used 'work' as a subject. The Lewis Hine, for example, campaigned against child labour in America at the beginning of the 20th century before, years later, celebrating the men who constructed the Empire State Building. In pre-war 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 sounds; 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, and what it cannot do.
That said, when I learnt I’d be photographing in the Bombardier train factory in Derby, I was intruiged. 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 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, but even then the production line is long and slow-moving; it’s certainly not spectacular.
So, as well as trying to make pictures, my assistant Murray made recordings of schmaltzy 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. I even wrote a blog post about it - see here.
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.