He Served his Time at Cammell Lairds

light with lampshade against ceiling

Ruth White

In this blog I touch on key themes developed in this collection, around community, care and class as radical politics and practice. Following a burgeoning academic interest in the photobook, as established by Patricia Di Bello, Collette Wilson and Shamoon Zamir, and by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, my doctoral research, entitled ‘A Practice-led Investigation into the Role of the Photobook in Representing the British Working-Classes Since 1975’, examines how seven British photobooks have represented the impact of Thatcherism and its legacy on the British working-classes during the period covered and demonstrates how photo zine practice can be used as a tool for the investigation and analysis of the lived experience of class.

The model of photo zine practice I have developed can be used to investigate the lived experience of class, as well as other lived experiences and potentially, any other observable phenomenon. Like the sociological analysis of class in Britain, the method of photo zine practice that has been developed, ‘rests in [an] ambivalent location betwixt and between academic, political and public fields’ (Savage, 2016:58). As such, it can be used and adapted by a wide range of individuals and groups both inside and outside of academia, for a wide variety of purposes.

In what follows, I will offer a brief description of each of the seven British photobooks analyzed in my thesis, this will be done in an order that reflects their subject matter, ranging from the most intimate and private to the most public. I will then move on to a visual and textual analysis of He Served His Time at Cammell Lairds, one of the eight photo zines I produced for the PhD.

Thatcherism and the legacy on working class lives: seven British photobooks

1. Ray’s a laugh (1996) is about the domestic life of Richard Billingham’s working-class family and their menagerie of pets, living in abject poverty in an over-crowded, tower block flat, in the West Midlands. Ray, whom the title refers to, is Billingham’s alcoholic father.

2. Nick Waplington’s Living Room (1991) is about the domestic lives of two working-class families. Living Room depicts working-class poverty, but more of a middle-of-the road poverty, which comes closer to my own upbringing than the extreme poverty and deprivation of the Billinghams.

3. Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring (1986) is about the conditions in social security offices and job centres across Britain in the 1980s, which were dealing with millions of people, made unemployed because of deindustrialisation and the policies of the Thatcher government.

4. Martin Parr’s The Last Resort (1986) is about New Brighton – a run-down sea side resort on the Wirral coastline, which sits opposite the city of Liverpool. It focuses on the working-class day trippers that visited the rubbish strewn resort during holiday periods.

5. Paul Reas’s I Can Help (1988) is about the consumerist boom of the 1980s, and indirectly about post-industrialism. Under Thatcher, a consumerist boom was built on the ruins of industrialism as the supermarket built on the site of a former car factory in the book reveals.

6. Chris Killip’s Pirelli Work (2006) is about the work force of a Pirelli tyre factory which features theatrically lit portraits of Pirelli tyre factory workers, at work in their individual job roles inside the dark factory. Pirelli Work represents a sort of benchmark, both economically and culturally, of what has been lost to the working-classes because of the mass de-industrialisation that came about because of Thatcherism – skilled jobs, autonomy, dignity, security at work and a decent wage that could support a family.

7. Chris Killip’s In Flagrante (1988) features photographs spanning the period 1975 – 1987 which also make visible the lived consequences of deindustrialisation, accelerated by Thatcherite policies. Killip is the only photographer amongst those analysed, whose aim appears to be to draw attention to the destruction of the traditional working-class and working-class communities. He is the only photographer to point towards the governmental structures which have brought it about within his photographs.

These works provided models of practice and representations of class and lived experience in Britain, to work with and against. Subject matter, ethical approach, camera apparatus, photographic technique, sequencing of photographs and book design are all part of the models of photo zine practice that they provided, which have strongly influenced my own photo zine practice, which I describe below.

He Served His Time at Cammell Lairds: A Photo zine

He Served His Time at Cammell Lairds is an A5, forty-page, colour photo zine about the material conditions of my deceased father-in-law’s bedroom. He Served His Time at Cammell Lairds is metonymically about many things. It is about the living standards of working-class families who have lived through Thatcherism, the standard of living provided by working-class jobs in general, and the demise of those types of apprenticeships and skilled jobs for working-class men which was accelerated by Thatcherism.  The title is also a reference to the actual time served by my father-in law as an apprentice French Polisher at Cammell Lairds (a shipbuilding company) when he was fifteen. He went on to spend more of his working life at the Vauxhall Motor plant in Elsmere Port but it was the apprenticeship at Lairds that provided him with a “trade” and craft skills he could be proud of.

For context, Cammell Lairds has existed as a shipbuilding company in Birkenhead since 1824. As Brian Marren notes, ‘it has had a long history as a major employer in the region, and it was one of the few durable goods manufacturing companies indigenous to Merseyside’ (Marren, 2016:181). Like the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, the defeat of the Cammell Lairds workers sit-in strike of 1984, for which a small percentage of the workforce occupied two ships in response to the announcement of 3,300 compulsory redundancies (Marren, 2016:182), ‘signalled the close of an era’ (Marren, 2016:198).

When taking the photographs which feature in He Served His Time at Cammell Lairds, I wanted to not only to capture the shabbiness of the room but to create a sense of what it was like to spend time there, to move around the space on a day-to-day basis, including lying in bed and looking up at the ceiling.

The photographing of my father-in-law’s material possessions within his private living space, was an intrusion and an invasion of not only his, but also my mother-in-law’s intimate lives, and as such, is an act of violation (despite the consent of my mother-in-law). But this violation is productive, in that the photographs and photobook allow through their capacity to bear witness and tell the truth (at least aspects of the truth), the revelation of his (and my mother-in-law’s) position within the totality of social and economic relations (Roberts, 2014:1-2) in Britain within this historical period. Conterminously, it also allows me to communicate something about the ‘hidden injuries’ of class’ (Sennett and Cobb, 1972). This mode of photography might therefore be one way to think about documenting and doing radical care as method and praxis, particular through objects of material culture.

The significance of Cammell Lairds as a large employer in Birkenhead and on Merseyside, the politics of its work place, the notoriety of the sit-in strike that took place at the same time as the miners’ strike and the Labour/Militant council’s battle with the Thatcher government, all play a role in the kind of associations evoked by the name Cammell Lairds in the photo zine’s title for people of a certain age living in the Merseyside region.

He Served His Time at Cammell Lairds is the closest I come to representing the working-classes struggle for ‘the necessities of life’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 373) within my photo zines, and I only managed to achieve this through the photographing objects rather than subjects, as signs of inequality and financial hardship can be difficult to signify through photographs if they are not glaringly obvious.

Ruth is an artist and researcher. She has recently completed her PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her main research interests include social class and the formation of identity: http://ruthmadelinewhite.weebly.com/

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