University: University of Sunderland
Genre: Social Documentary
Artist Statement: I am currently photographing and filming a documentary of the ex-employees, remains and archives of the former Pilkington’s Glass HQ in St Helens, Merseyside. Currently Alexandra Business Park, the site is now owned by a property management company. It is a quiet concrete maze of grey buildings and car parks designed around a huge landscaped lake and green space. In its heyday, we would have witnessed a bustling 25,000 employees in the business of making glass for use in buildings and vehicles. Now, it is in part, office space for businesses such as: outsourced NHS departments, game designers, local SME’s and charities who reside in the ‘shell’ of the listed/dated brutalist architecture and 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s to present day décor. Now, and especially at night, it is an eerie, silent zone of former commerce. Wood-paneled corridors that used to ferry thousands of workers into offices and onto factory floors now echo with the solitary footsteps of the occasional (watching) security guard. I happen to be that security guard. Working as a night watchman has given me unlimited access and time to investigate the building(s) while on patrol.
Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I started at the Surrey Institute for Art and Design 2001/2002 but I did not feel the University and the Town (Farnham) was right for me so after completing my 1st year I transferred to The University of Sunderland. I completed my Degree in Photography, Video & Digital Imaging in 2005 and stayed a further year to complete an M.A. in Fine Art graduating in 2006.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? The standout moments in Surrey were the David Campany lectures. At Sunderland it was getting to know the photography collectives in the North East (AMBER/Side Gallery/North East Photography Network). I actually broke my arm in my final year so I had to complete my final 3 modules and a dissertation during a 6 week period over the summer after the university and its facilities had closed. Not sure if it's a proud moment but it certainly stood out that I could work independently with 1 arm in a cast to complete a lot of work in short space of time.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I'm not sure if I fall into a genre. I have always experimented with different practices; alternative print, fine art, video and digital. My sister is a choreographer so we have collaborated on a few projects with performers for things like The John Cage Music Circus (working with Merce Cunningham) and performances at The Place Theatre amongst others. Although I like to experiment I always seem to return to social documentary practice, with a focus on working class industries in particular. This is probably because of my personal links to those particular projects.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? I like to explore the themes of working life and how society is changing and the impacts that has on the people and their landscape.
What initially drew you to this location to make a series of work? The series (Shouldn't Throw Stones) of work that I'm making now drew me in for a number of reasons. Firstly I was made redundant as a Gallery Supervisor at the Liverpool New Media Art Gallery FACT (Foundation For Art And Creative Design). The gallery wanted to replace paid and zero contract workers with volunteers. As a result I had to give up my shared studio space. I was just completing my PGCE teaching qualification in addition to being a stay at home dad for 2 years. I was offered a few teaching positions which then disappeared with large funding cuts to colleges in the district. I had set up my own freelance company LBM (Lens Based Media) to produce both corporate photography and video with personal projects. As you know art doesn't always pay the bills so I needed to look for work to help with the mortgage and 2 young kids. I was contacted by a property site manager I know who needed a night watchman for a business in St Helens (Merseyside). I was told that it used to be the Pilkington's Glass HQ. I had heard of Pilkington's but had no idea to the sheer size and scale of their business empire and the properties and sites associated with it. I was given a quick tour of the 32 acre site, it's several interconnecting buildings, tunnels, lake, basements etc.. was given the keys and told "ok see you in the morning". I began to take photographs of the various locations as a visual guide to help me from getting lost on site. I then began to think that there was a potential project and began to examine the rooms and listed architectural features and rare artworks that remained on site. I also read up on the history of Pilkington's, its innovations, strike actions, philanthropy and impact it had on the town and U.K./international industry. Little by little the project started to form into a body of work. If I was asked to be a night watchman of a dull, empty, plain warehouse I may not have taken the job.
What would you like for your images to tell your viewer? I would like my images to raise questions with the viewer and to highlight certain themes. The role and isolation of night workers, the fall from grace and changing way of life from U.K. industrial towns. The archive of objects that remain and their links and narratives to how they were used. How buildings that were used for one particular purpose may be used for another, regenerated or left to decline.
Who visually inspired you when making Shouldn't Throw Stones? I did not set out to create a body of work in the particular style of one photographer. I have seen a lot of common themes of photography used in the workplace by workers. This ranges from an artist such as Sophie Calle making a concerned effort to create an art project in a working environment. There is the discovery of a treasure trove of documentary work from the South African Doorman Billy Monk who used to take pictures of the drunks and party go-ers as mementos to sell for extra money whilst working on security. There is also the work of Chris Shaw Night Porter. A creative with a photography background who is working to support their practice or day to day living, maybe using photography as a coping mechanism to their working environment? I don't think my aesthetic or style is the same as these photographers/artists but there are various themes or roles as a worker/creative that I have crossed over with each one.
Can you explain your series title? The series title Shouldn't Throw Stones refers to a few aspects of the project. First it is taken from the old saying "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" there is the link to how vulnerable jobs and towns who relied on the manufacturing industry really were in particular glass to the town of St Helens. For my job role I have to stop trespassers breaking into the buildings and vandalising the property (one popular method the vandals use is to throw stones and rocks at the huge amount of glass within the site). Another reason was that I heard a few of the staff on site talking about how they over heard derogatory comments from another worker. Their supervisor said he literally couldn't come up with a better metaphor for the situation in a glass factory HQ than "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones".
You graduated in 2006 which means you had quite some time to make work and establish a career. Have you got any advice or tips for new graduates? As a graduate I don't know if I have a career as a photographer. It's certainly not for the want of trying and something I am still hopeful to do. I never had any wild fantasises that as soon as I graduated a Photography degree that a world of fame and fortune would be waiting for me. I must admit it is a hard struggle especially as you get older and have more commitments than as a young graduate. The advice I would give is be diverse, don't be afraid to experiment and create a body of work that you can be proud of. It is great when you get those moments of praise from peers, curators and galleries but it should not be why your motivated. Create work you are passionate about.
Tell us about Lens Based Media. Lens Based Media (LBM) is a photography, video and digital imaging company. LBM creates work for both commercial and personal/passion projects. The company is primarily the work of myself. However, because I collaborate with creatives from a wide variety of backgrounds for both commercial and personal projects I decided to form all work into a single entity 'LBM' I also hire out photography and video equipment to other creatives and freelancers.
What do you think the future holds for your work? What does the future hold for my work? Realistically, I would hope to earn my living creating photography and video in both commercial and fine art practices. Right now as well as trying to complete the Shouldn't Throw Stones project; It will be a site specific exhibition, film and published book. I am working like a mad man working 48-72 hours a week, childcare, publishing the book, shooting and editing the film and trying to put on an exhibition all without any funding (last year I was also doing some freelance teaching during the daytime but it proved to be a task too many). Right now I am currently signed up to the Redeye professional practice course Light-box; I am working with a great group of photographers with the aim of creating work, fundraising and exhibiting in an upcoming photo-festival. The light-box program has given me the much missed group feedback and support that I have missed since graduating University and leaving my previous studio group. I'm hoping that in the future when I die people will really appreciate the genius that I am. (joke)