The most striking images in the exhibition Photographs by Tom Wood: Cammell Laird Shipyard 1993–1996: Photographs from the Documentary Photography Archive, currently at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, are the ones without actual workers but in which their presence is felt. They are the grubby, chaotic spaces in which many years of toil is vividly alive through stains and discolouration, the kind of interior that is in dire need of renovation and sanitation. In today’s parlance, they are a version of the ‘man-cave’, that squalid time-space continuum reeking of patriarchy usually found at the end of the garden. These workers own their spaces in a way that is more authentic and deserved than the company who otherwise legally claim them. This fact seems to have been tacitly recognised by Cammell Laird’s themselves, as there seems to have been no top-down demand to eliminate the worker’s personality from the spaces concerned, converting it back to the clinical white box in which the worker kneels in supplication to the capitalist machine. Laying claim to your workspace by personalising it is one of the discrete ways in which the worker rebels against capitalist reality. It is for just this reason that ‘clear desk’ policies abound in modern working life: do not assume this workspace is yours to claim, they seem to be saying, just as your labour is never really yours to freely dispose of or give to the employer engaging you on ever more precarious conditions.
There is another, less favourable, way of looking at the tendency for workers to leave their mark on the space that is and isn’t theirs. This highlights one of the unexpected elements of the exhibition at the Williamson. The gallery warns visitors before entering the space that there are images of nudity that some may find offensive. Nudity is almost neutral these days. Barely an eyelid is batted upon the appearance of the naked, almost always, female, form in painting and sculpture. This convention is so unalloyed and widespread that a gallery without such images would perturb visitors, as if their desensitisation to the exposure of female flesh is overturned when it is withheld from view. The case is altogether different when the female body features pornographically. We know the difference, and the difference between the Williamson’s alert and the reality made the disparity all the more naked, as it were. For some Cammell Laird workers engaged in a festival of pornography. We’re not talking titillation, which is bad enough. Almost all of the images within Wood’s images were full-on, hard-core pornography. One large photograph contained material so hard core, in fact, that someone had seen fit to stick a post-it note unceremoniously over the female subject’s anatomy. This recognised that a limit had been overstepped. The woman in question was reduced to the part that she was made to expose for the insatiable male gaze.
One image after another contained material ripped or cut neatly from the Cammell Laird worker’s favoured periodical. Their appetite for pornography was let off the leash, and their employer seemed to approve, in their own way: let the grubby workers do want they want, it’s good for productivity. These images exhibited in the most direct and uncensored (some might say unforgiving) of ways what Roland Barthes’ called the studium: that detail in the photographic image relaying historical information about the subject, their time and their way of life, their class, status, tastes, and so on. Crucially, however, the subject concerned was not the exploited women but the men whose gaze demanded women manipulated their bodies for the pleasure and power of anyone but themselves.
Pornography was fairly well represented in Tom Wood’s images, although obviously this was not the fault of the photographer. Wood reveals a truth about the male worker from the early nineties (the culmination of a postwar period that peaked in the now egregious seventies and eighties) that cannot be ignored, a reality that is finally coming home in the post-Savile, post-Weinstein 2010s, crystallised by the #metoo movement. These images pinned me to the spot. It was not that I was gaining illicit, unexpected pleasure from pornography in a space that almost allowed me to gawp at women’s bodies without censure. Rather it was a sense of historical time that swayed my attention. I was receiving these images in a distinct stage in feminist history, when patriarchy is said to be on the back foot, the tide of unquestioned male power held back by a level of anger that signalled that time was up for (certain kinds of) men.
The enduring power of photographic images is their innate technical and representative capacity to freeze time and space for another time and another space. The image attracts or repels. Of course, the viewer’s desires will decide which course of action is taken, but in the main the image does the magnetic work. Perhaps it is not an either/or position but an in-between or liminal one, a state of suspension energised by competing forces. The power of the photographic image also lies in the extent to which it enthralls us against our very wishes, otherwise known as the Medusa-effect: the irresistable urge is to stare the snake-ridden head down, but we risk being turned to stone by doing so. One way of conceiving the standard aesthetic response to photography is through its historicity, namely the tension between then and now and the ways in which time influences the degree of alienation effected between the viewer and the viewed. We can cope with such tension only for so long. We crave release from being so captured by that which was itself captured. [What did that tribe say about the image stealing the soul?]
Cammell Laird exerts a certain power over Birkenhead. Few families have not been touched by the shipbuilding company. Generation after generation of fathers and grandfathers have passed through ‘the yard’ at one time or another. Some will still recall the days on which a ship was launched onto the Mersey, a big day for the town, the kind of festival atmosphere allied to industry that is all but lost in twenty-first century capitalism. It was because of his work as a riveter at Cammell Laird’s that my maternal granddad died before his time as a result of exposure to asbestos. Hence the ghost or zombie of Cammell Laird’s stalks life in Birkenhead. Still, like the ever-thinning crowds thronging appearances of the royals, the recent launch of RRS Sir David Attenborough onto the Mersey was met with only limited festivity. Something of the people’s disdain rather than unquestioned respect for the loyalty towards shipbuilding was summed up by ‘Boaty McBoatface’, the alternative and ultimately rejected name proposed for the vessel. Forgive the pun, but the ship has sailed on Cammell Laird’s ability to extract suprlus value from the pride of the people of Birkenhead. After the company’s demise and the nefarious treatment of its workers, these days people are wise to what companies really represent (themselves and shareholders) and how workers feature in the picture of capitalism (in the background, pushed up against the frame; better out of the picture).
None of this changed my contempt for what I saw in Wood’s photographs. This had nothing to do with the photographer’s eye or technical skill, which allies documentary precision with the refined formal features of portraiture, simultaneously showing and telling. If anything, the porno was a startling feature of life at Cammell Laird, and, it should be said, not only at Cammell Laird and not in relation to all of its workers either. But it is somewhat representative. There’s a core something at work in these images, which could be called truth, since there is no doubt that men ruled the roost back then, no matter how many times they joked about ‘the other half’ or the ‘Mrs’ ruling them. The flagrant enjoyment of porno in the workplace – plastered onto walls, taped onto the inside of lockers, shoved into drawers – was a particular manifestation of their ownership of the world. You might look upon it more sympathetically, perhaps even compassionately, as some are prone to do even now, as the inability of heterosexual men to freely express themselves. The cup, however, is running low in that regard. (Parents protecting their young princes from the feminists demanding they treat women respectfully and equally are an especially backward contingent, confusing the son’s right to express themselves as a human subject with their so-called rights as future men.)
Sundry realisations dawned on me that all but diluted my compassion for the Cammell Laird men as beleaguered workers, in relation to which I momentarily enjoyed the thought of their superannuation, as if their fate as working class subjects was payback for their treatment of others. More than anything I contemplated what it must have been like to pass through these spaces as a cleaner, almost certainly all of whom would have been women, or indeed all other female employees (I don’t know the figures, but I suspect they were low). These men had no regard for the exposure of those cleaners to degrading images of women, added to which is the sad prospect that the relationship of the women concerned (the cleaners, that is) to their own bodies will have been determined by what their husbands demanded of and from them. What little to no respect these workers had for such women was paradoxically enforced the other way round, of course, in the case of their own wives and daughters: respect or else! But why bother? Why bother when degradation eventually comes full circle by means of other men’s appetitive instincts and behaviour? Instincts and behaviours they did little to keep in check (everyone is allowed a fantasy life) or denigrate (porno in the workplace is below men’s dignity, if it must be put that way).
I contemplated what it must have been like to come out as gay to these men. The porno may not have been all-encompassing, but its accumulation was sufficient to enforce a heterosexual, male-dominated notion of sexual relations. Other images in the exhibition, ones refreshingly devoid of porno, were full-length portraits in which the men stood firm but seemed anything but. Wood’s feel for light and composure lent a vulnerable majesty to his subjects, which I suppose is what most viewers are likely to intuit given what we know of their eventual fate as workers, the last stand of the old working class. Some intuition of their vulnerability, the terrible consequences of being laid-off with little chance of finding sustainable work elsewhere, the explosive impact on family life and indeed their marriage (a taste for porno does not preclude your ability to be a dedicated husband or father) – some of this crept in as I looked into their eyes, eyes which may have even melted the hearts of any closeted gay man, few to none though there may have been. But the thought remains: what is the likelihood of such open enjoyment of straight pornography coexisting with openness to difference? Straight porno says: this is what we want, this is who we are, we’re not going anywhere. No matter how moribund or ugly we may be, we still think we can possess the girl in that image, there where ‘she’ is on full view. Try coming out to that.
And then I gave some thought to the women who wanted a break in the engineering industry. The women who want to get into overalls and get stuck in. This last sentence is a little provocative, as it could be read as a pitch for a porno shoot, one possibly dreamt-up by the desperate homunculi of Cammell Laird’s. The fact that this sentence can be read thus is symptomatic of a culture in which it is possible for the image of women as industrial workers to be limited to the pornographic fantasy world of the ‘real men’ who traditionally occupy those roles. In light of this, slowly but surely and over a fairly long time, women have had to unpick themselves from the sticky surface of straight male fantasy and prove their worth in the hard, sometimes brutal, almost always arse-sweating world of shipbuilding.
Born earlier and I may have ended up working at Cammell Laird. Who knows? Born earlier still and I may have ended up a docker. Imagining who and what you may have been had you been born at a different stage in history is a pointless parlour game. Why wouldn’t you have been the person you are now, with some modification? The forces of history (and folded within that, class forces) have other ideas for your destiny. You are lucky to be the person you are now based on the time you were born. Perhaps my destiny now will have been different had I made other choices, or instead traumatic events or accidents of history could have decided for me. We romanticise working class life from the past, peering at it through rose-tinted glasses. But few of us would have wanted to live those lives ourselves. The effect of rose-tinted glasses is that they place us in isolation from what lies on the other side – that is over there, beyond reach (thank God). Yet it is somehow a part of who I am. Cammell Laird is a part of me and almost any working class person from Wallasey or Birkenhead on the Wirral. Yet looking at these images at the Williamson I felt a gulf opening up that was too wide to fill. I stepped into the gallery space thinking I would indulge in a little working class pride and bolster my politics for the workers. Down with the bosses! Sadly I walked out glad that the world had done with all that – porno-lined workspaces, weak-spirited giants astride the world of work, unrestrained patriarchy… Of course, to bastardise Marx, these things haven’t really disappeared from view, they are the spectres haunting contemporary life.
I still think the workers of Cammell Laird were shafted by late twentieth-century capitalism. But in more ways than one those workers shafted society too.