British photojournalist Richard Jones spent more than 20 years in Asia building a reputation for gritty industrial images that showed the region’s factories, machinery and workforce as the bedrock of its much fabled rapid transformation. When Jones returned to the UK in 2013, to his native Cardiff, he became absorbed by how the once torn landscape of industrial decline that he knew as a child was disappearing. Aligned with this was a sense that an important story about today’s industrial Britain remained largely untold.
Jones says he initially felt an unexpected sense of culture shock after living away for so long, but soon started once again to use his cameras to explore his familiar interwoven themes of industry and change.
But this time, however, his story was of course a Welsh one, and the resultant work, that combines a set of highly stylized time-lapse films with a series of innovative audiovisual “talking portraits,” now forms part of an Arts Council of Wales sponsored “Energy+Notion” multimedia exhibition that celebrates the area’s rich industrial past and is touring Welsh theaters and cinemas from October 2016.
Jones is clear that the early impetus for this project came directly from his experiences in Asia.
“I came back after living away for so long and I kept hearing so much negativity about the UK, about how there was no manufacturing happening and about the shipping containers arriving full from China and leaving empty.
“Also it was because I had spent so much time in factories all across in Asia and worked on so many stories about old British brands moving to Asia … shoemakers Clarks and Doctor Martins moving production to China. Burberry, too.
“They had a factory in the Rhonda Valley just up the road from where I grew up and after that closed I coincidentally visited the new factory in China … You hear so much about China’s factories all the time, but so little about the factories in the UK or about the people that work in them.
“But the UK is still the fifth biggest economy in the world, it is also said to be an exporter and it has this vast industrial heritage, and was the manufacturer of the world at one point. So I thought I would look into it. I wanted to know what the real story was.”
In his native Wales, Jones found a transforming land and people. Once absolutely dominated by coal, he found communities that were still very conscious and proud of a past that was seminal to the development of the industrial revolution and, surprisingly, still economically reliant on the production of power as solar, wind and hydro energy is bringing the jobs and the money back into many of the towns and villages.
Further afield across the UK he found factories that were booming, but not with the slick mass, just-in-time production lines seen throughout Asia.
These were small, high-end facilities manufacturing fine spun textiles, leather shoes or cut crystal, on machinery that was sometimes more than 100 years old.
The output was heavily marketed as quintessentially British top end and artisanal, and the goods, ironically, often ended up on the shelves of glitzy downtown stores in Asia.
“The most obvious difference is the scale. In China, Vietnam, Indonesia, everything in the factories is vast and you just don’t see that in the UK. Also, the people … In Asia, workers would come for thousands of miles to work in the factories. They would be young, late teens or in their 20s, they sleep communally in dormitories, eat in workplace canteens and live a regimented and organized life that is totally engulfed by work.
“In the UK, the workers I met usually lived locally and were older. I met a lot of people that were 50 years or older who had often been working there 20 or 30 years, and were highly skilled.
“In China, the workers skip from factory to factory, to get better money. They are transient and it’s something the UK factory owners recognize and has caused what is known as “re-shoring”, where UK firms bring production back to their own country because that is where the skill base still sits.
“To consistently make these type of top-end goods, it is problematic because they cannot retain a level of skilled people, the knowledge base, that the products require. That is just not the case in the UK.”
However the most surpassing difference says Jones is regarding access. “In the UK, you have to have approvals, schedules, timetables. It can take weeks and weeks, but in Asia you can just rock up on the day and start shooting. An owner or manager there doesn’t need a schedule. They might just want to give you access so they get the opportunity to have dinner with you afterward.”
Jones says he is proud of this work, partly because after so many years living away it has allowed him to explore and celebrate his own industrial heritage and also because it has meant he is publishing work in formats that are relatively new to him.
“I chose time lapse partly because I was looking for a new format,” continues Jones. “The traditional way of photography, of news, is dying. So I thought about how I could do things differently. But I also wanted a way that allowed me to show an entire manufacturing process, be it yarn or leather, or steel, that ends up as a sweater or shoes or a car, within a two-minute format. It then also works as an educational piece.
“But what it also means is that each film takes two or three days of shooting on the factory floor, with three cameras fixed on tripods, which in all makes about 15,000 images stitched together, After editing, in all, it’s a week’s work for two minutes,” concludes Jones. “The reportage work took me seconds. It was more straight forward and yes, of course, I miss it but, like everything else, I had to change with the times.”