By Tom Sebastiano
Birmingham-based photographer Matt Peers’ series, ‘Portraits of Employees, Deceased, Left, Retired’ portrays the shared spaces of a working factory in North Birmingham. In it, he explores what it means ‘to go to work’ in a post-industrial North Birmingham and the fast disappearing traditional workplaces that are being replaced by an ever-expanding service economy, especially in England’s industrial heartland. I wanted to know more about the project and his photographic influences and so I recently asked him some questions.
Hi Matt, tell me a bit about you?
I think if you looked up Average Joe in the Dictionary you’d find me there. I’ve the full 2.4 nuclear family and the hair and waistline to prove it. For the time being I’m not thinking about or actively practising photography, I’m an IT Project Manager at the local University.
What first sparked your interest in photography?
For me, my interest has been a long history of lost time and opportunities. When I was 11, I got a 110 camera kit for Christmas and I remember being consistently complimented for having a ‘good eye’ by the grown ups I showed my pictures to. Naively, I thought that was just a skill, like bowling a cricket ball or kicking with my left foot, that I could pick up and put down when I wanted. My interest would pique when I went on holiday, but then wane again till the next trip. In the days pre-digital and social media, a work colleague even purchased some of my holiday pictures, but it still didn’t occur to me take it further. Then, in my mid 30s, two significant events happened; becoming a parent and studying for a degree in Psychology. Becoming a parent meant that I had my camera with me all the time; allowing me to practice and to get to grips with the more technical side of the camera. It was the degree course, however, that really opened my mind as to how photography can explore the big questions – in particular the relationship between the individual and their environment.
How did you come to shoot this series?
It was very close to one of the University campus buildings that I would regularly walk past, often wondering what was going on inside. Next to a brutalist, ex-polytechnic building, it looked like a relic from the industrial past. At certain times of the day, plumes of steam would rise from its roof leaving a strong chemical odour in the air and, for me, that just added to the whole mystery of the place. One afternoon I decided that if I don’t go in and ask I’ll never find out. I thought there would be a number of reasons why they’d say no – Health & Safety, the need of supervision, not interested, etc but, to my surprise, the Managing Director was very supportive of the idea of allowing myself and a colleague and fellow photographer inside to document the interiors for a potential project. On their initial viewing, many people thought the project was about an abandoned factory, but I think its state of disrepair is symbolic of manufacturing in the Midlands and the country as a whole.
I’m interested in what you say about it being symbolic of manufacturing in the UK; can you elaborate a little on your thoughts and how it affected the series?
The onset of ever expanding automation, 3D printing, our nation’s trading relationship with its immediate neighbours all contribute to an uncertain future but, when you consider the decades of employment this factory has supported, the place of work and the role as employee has radically changed. We now have a service-based economy with its identical retail, distribution and call centres, hot desks and anonymous non person-specific workstations. The boundaries of the working environment have come down – employees can uproot to their home, to the café, to wherever the unit of activity can be completed. Apprenticeships, working our way up the ladder, a job for life, security, an industrial fortnight, the coach trip to the coast with work, the Christmas do, the carriage clock and the retirement party…most, if not all are now consigned to the past. These images, I hope, act as visual reminders of human life existing within a declining industrial landscape.
How soon after you walked in did you realise that you had found a special place?
The reality was far better than my imagination! I don’t have a very good poker face so I must have looked like a kid in a sweet shop. For quite some time, the employees were utterly bemused as to why on earth I was photographing their workplace with such a gleeful look.
Did you shoot the entire set in one visit or did you return?
I’m grateful to say I was allowed to return regularly for over a year, which enabled me to take my time and explore a number of ideas.
For me, there is a melancholic feeling expressed in the tired personal items and worn signs but especially in the faded photos of staff. What were your feelings when you were in the factory – did you see a theme right away or did a story emerge after you shot the photos?
Initially, I thought the project would be about environmental portraits of existing staff in their workplace and how it has shifted over time; but the more I visited, the more it became apparent it was about echoes of the past and the lives spent there that needed to be explored. Then, on one visit, I found a Kodak box of portraits of employees from the 1940s. Marked in biro on the lid was ‘Portraits of Employees, Deceased, Left, Retired’. It was like a sign from on high as to the project’s name and direction.
Can you tell me about how you approach a shot, what attracts you to a scene or place?
What I’m looking for are places and occasions where juxtapositions to a notion of the social norm may appear; a chance to find the incongruous within a scene and, ultimately, I hope, striking a chord with the viewer. Light is incredibly important, as the meaning and the emotional response to an image can change dramatically depending on the type of light available.
I notice on your website that you have several photo series, for example, The Future’s Bright and the excellent Bourke’s Regulars. Can you tell me how important a series or project, as opposed to a single image, is to you and why?
I think it is really important to produce bodies of work within a project, as the framework of a project allows you to continually ask questions of your ideas and the images you’re creating. For individual images to stand out they have to make an impact, whereas the narrative and mood of a project can be built through sequencing more subtle, less ‘immediate’ images. The attention grabbing, quick turnover demands of social media favours immediately arresting single images as opposed to presenting a wider project. Don’t get me wrong, I still take plenty of individual images for their aesthetic qualities, but my natural instinct is to create a narrative structure wherever possible, even if that is through a short monograph or a brief blog.
Can you tell me about your plans for your next project?
I’m continuing to work on two projects – ‘The Future’s Bright’ and ‘From Around These Parts’. ‘The Future’s Bright’ is an exploration of the notion of how we are living the reality of an imagined future of the past. I’m a child of the 1970s and I remember how the advances in technology would be addressing the social and personal ills of the day… but the reality is a muddle between this imagined future and the mundanity of everyday life. ‘From Around These Parts’ is an ongoing social portrait project where, regardless of national or local identity, we were both from around these parts.
Which photographers have inspired you most?
I’m a big photobook collector, so I will regularly look at Harry Callahan, Elliot Erwitt, Bruce Davidson, Joel Sternfeld and Joel Meyerowitz. In contemporary photography, I’m a huge fan of the work of Alec Soth, Sian Davey, Niall McDiarmid and Matt Stuart. It’s not just the known names though, I get daily inspiration and motivation from so many fellow photographers that I follow on social media too.
Finally, if you could spend a couple of weeks anywhere in the world to shoot a project, where and what would you like to shoot?
So many places and so little time…but I think it would have to be a tour of the former Soviet Bloc to explore the brutalist architecture from the Communist era. I’d have to knock on a few doors to see what’s on the inside, of course…
Matt Peers’ photographic study represents an increasingly rare insight into a type of workplace that is evaporating fast in modern Britain’s increasing service-oriented economy and a valuable piece of documentary photography.
See more of Matt’s work at:
All images copyright Matt Peers.
All words copyright Tom Sebastiano. This article was first published on Tom’s blog invernodreaming.com.