‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’.
About 5 months ago I got a phone call from Lesley Young, a freelance curator from Glasgow, who was working alongside Jeremy Deller in putting together the exhibition. She briefly explained the premise – an art show looking at the roots that link pop music and contemporary culture with Britain’s industrial past. Jeremy had seen the photos that I had taken for the Financial Times inside one of Amazon’s nine UK ‘fulfilment centres’. He was interested in the captions that accompanied the life-size staff portraits that I had photographed adorning the entrance to the giant warehouse. Would I be happy to send over a couple of hi-res images so that he could read them?
Of course I was more than happy to do so – I’m a believer in sharing research materials, particularly when it is for a public institution that is trying to bring art and societal critique to a broader audience. This was followed up later by an email from Gilly Fox, assistant curator of Hayward Touring, asking me if I’d be willing to contribute 3 photographs to the show.
A couple of years ago I sat on a panel for one of Jim Stephenson’s ‘Miniclick‘ photography discussions. One thing that has stuck with me ever since was a comment from photographer Jason Larkin, who lamented the sometimes insular nature of photography. To loosely paraphrase, he said something along the lines of:
“If my photographs were only ever seen by other photographers, then I’d consider that a failure”.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have photographed some interesting and topical assignments for the likes of the FT Magazine and recently the Wall Street Journal, but it could be argued that even these publications have a relatively niche audience. I’ve long been an admirer of Jeremy Deller’s ability to engage with a broad cross section of the public with his curatorial projects, so recognised this as an opportunity to have my work shown in a fresh and interesting context.
When I was given the assignment to photograph the Amazon story for the FT Magazine, I didn’t fully comprehend the responsibility that had been handed to me. I knew that I would treat the job with professionalism, and endeavour to make the best photographs that I could – however when I entered the gargantuan warehouse and saw the stark functionality that characterised the interior, I felt a sense of duty to really make the most of the privileged access that I had been granted. I had been informed prior to the visit that I wouldn’t be allowed to photograph any employees (or ‘associates’ as Amazon label their workers) – however the first thing that I saw before entering the airport style security were the surreal life-size portraits of Adam Hoccon and Bev Horton extolling the virtues of working for Amazon. They immediately struck me as odd – were those quotes real? It was almost like propaganda. I decided that I would try to photograph them at some point.
For the next hour, FT journalist Sarah O’Connor and I were escorted around the fulfilment centre by the facility manager and Amazon’s head of UK Public Relations. I was able to photograph relatively freely, and concentrated on attempting to convey the scale of the building and the operations inside. After passing through security on the way out, I stopped and quickly photographed the two staff portrait posters. I was only able to shoot a frame of each (I was using a Mamiya RZ Camera on a tripod, a relatively slow way of working) before the PR representative had what seemed to be a bit of a panic and asked me to stop photographing. I was glad that I had decided to shoot on film as there was no way that my work could then be reviewed or deleted.
Earlier in my career as a photographer (before I had even started studying) I had lofty dreams and ambitions that my work could ‘make a difference’. Over time I came to look back on these goals as naive. I’m not so vain as to believe that my photographs are so brilliant that they can instantly move people, but the way in which my Amazon photographs have been re-appropiated since their initial publication in the FT Magazine has helped me to understand that in the right hands, photographs have the power to at the very least open a dialogue and engage an audience in new ways.
Jeremy Deller and his curatorial team have incorporated my photographs into an exhibition that is broad not only in its scope, but in the range of artefacts and works on display. The consideration that has gone into the positioning of individual pieces is evident, and serves to make visitors question their preconceptions and constantly pause for reflection. I’m not going to deny that I was flattered and astounded to see my photograph of the fulfilment centre interior as the opening work in the show, but looking back, the positioning of the image of Adam Hoccom is thought provoking and really stopped people in their tracks. To the right of the photograph is a mannequin’s arm, eerily protruding from the gallery wall. Strapped to the fore am is a Motorola WT4000 electronic device.
The caption declares:
‘Worn on the wrist by employees in warehouses, devices like these are used by retail giant Amazon to track the speed of orders, and as a consequence, the efficiency of its staff. It can calculate if the worker is falling behind schedule and send warnings to inform him or her of the situation’.
Meanwhile, a small plaque to the right of the photograph directs the viewer to look towards the ceiling at a tapestry created by Ed Hall that declares coldly:
‘Hello, Today you have day off’
It is a transcription of a text message sent to a worker on a ‘zero hour’ contract informing him that his labour would not be required on that day.
I spent 30 minutes in the gallery watching people circulate around the space, and naturally couldn’t help watching people’s reaction to my photographs. Earlier this year I was frustrated when my photographs went viral across the internet and it seemed like people were missing the wider issues, simply entranced by the visual impact of the vast interiors. It was great to see how Jeremy Deller’s inspired curation had given the images a new energy, linking the subtle, abstract negatives of contemporary working conditions to the more immediate hardships that characterised the workhouses of the industrial revolution.
If you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend a visit to ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’. If you are in any way interested in Britain’s industrial history or music culture (or both?!) then you will find the show fascinating. Bryan Ferry’s family tree, a video of a Welsh transvestite wrestler (the son of a coal miner) and a flame enshrouded jukebox emitting the sounds of heavy industry all work together alongside other works to create a strange yet compelling dichotomy.
The exhibition will remain at the Manchester Art Gallery until the 19th January, before moving onto:
Nottingham Castle, Nottingham 31 January – 21 April 2014
Mead Gallery, University of Warwick 2 May – 21 June 2014
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle 12 July – 26 October 2014
I’d like to thank Jeremy Deller, Lesley Young, and Gilly Fox at the Hayward Gallery for giving me this opportunity, and of course Emma Bowkett, Aisha Zia and Sarah O’Connor from the FT for making the Amazon photographs possible in the first place.