Witness No. 3 – Martin Parr

Newspapers I read with a scissor. News about factory closings I cut
out. As a documentary photographer, I focus on changes in society,
both social and economical.The changes in the industrial landscape
have captured my attention for a long time. Holland, like many European
countries, is changing rapidly: we are becoming a country
of factories without chimneys. This development has had a major
impact on the nature of my work. In terms of film, I would call the
closure of a factory a dramatic moment in a long process. With the
closings, the changes of our society are becoming obvious;
as a photographer, I don’t have to emphasize anything anymore.
When I read in the newspaper that a factory will be closed, I call
the factory. They are usually not yet ready to make an appointment.
Management and workers are still negotiating the financial implications
of the closure, and there is a lot of tension among the employees
in the factory. Often, I am told to phone back in a month or
two. But after the first call, I send them a letter with my C.V. and a
proposal to make a book.
When the financial issues are resolved, there is enough time and
distance to realize what social impact the closure of a factory has.
From that moment, the management is more open-minded in finding
ways to pay respect to the people who have spent their years in
the factory. A book can be a good idea. Photography books are, in
my opinion, a perfect medium to commemorate. As the Dutch
writer Gerrit Krol once wrote: “Photographs are the tent-poles of
our memory.” In my letter, I propose to make a book to be handed
out to every employee on his or her last day of work.
I have made three books so far: Mensenstroom, 1997; De Kruitfabriek
in Muiden 1702-1904 (Gunpowder factory); and De Ritmeester
1887-2005 (Cigar factory). All three books I produced myself without
a publisher, and none were commercially distributed.
The “Mensenstroom” book was a bit different than the others,
because they immediately agreed to make a book after my initial
contact. The nuclear power plant in Dodewaard was the first one
build in the Netherlands, in 1969, and was relatively small (58 megawatts).
It was intended to be a nuclear power station for research and development;
the technology learned would the be used to build other, bigger plants.
But this never happened. Only one other nuclear
power plant has been built since, in Borssele, and it is still operational.
From the outset, I insisted on working with the graphic designers
Wouter Botman and Jenny van Driel (Vormgeversassociatie). The
concept of the design was to create a family photo album. Because
of the kind of work they were doing, most of the employees felt that
they were treated with hostility by the world outside the factory. In
the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Because of this, the workers considered each other family. (One man
told me that at birthday parties, he never mentioned where he
worked because of the endless discussions that would follow.) So we
chose the form of a family photo album, and the form also pays homage
to a very nice Dutch company book: Oranje Nassau Mijnen by
Nico Jesse, 1953 (Mining company in the south of the Netherlands)
which also contains a cassette.
The book “Mensenstroom” has a double meaning: Mens means
“human being” and Stroom means “stream” or “electricity,” so the
resulting meaning is “Stream of people.” This title was given because
it really was a real stream of people; in fact all, all the people
who worked at this nuclear power station were photographed. The
subtitle is: “In memory of the nuclear power station in Dodewaard.”
The numbers on the cover count down from 58 to 00: from 58
megawatts to 00 megawatts, the moment the factory was shut down.
The book starts with 58, the megawatts the factory was producing.
Then there is the movement from outside to inside to outside.
Starting with a panoramic overview, then a poem by the manager,
expressing his feelings the moment the factory was shut down, and
a foreword written by Wim Wennekes. Then my “pass,” the guards,
dogs, fences with “Nato wire,” the main entrance (with a bicycle
pump: where in the world outside of Holland would you find a doormen
with a pump?). We then added a list of abbreviations from the
factory’s safety report; drawings and schematics of the factory; historical
“highlights”; an organogram (graphic hierarchical drawing);
a list of all the employees; my “pass” again, an overview, the number
00, and finally, a computer list with the time registration I was
in the factory. (Four seconds short of 200 hours). All of the photographs
are made with a 4 X 5 camera using color negative film.
The three books give, in my opinion, a unique insight to the factories.
The management was no longer concerned with the commercial
appearance of their factories, because the factories was going to
be closed down anyway. Their goal was to say, in a respectful way,
“good-bye” and to thank the people for the work they had done.
I had total freedom to make the pictures and the books, and nobody
had to sweep and clean or brush their hair before I started taking
pictures. The manager of the Ritmeester cigar factory had, for
instance, no problems me portraying the employees smoking at
work. (He was even a bit disappointed about the fact that some were
smoking cigarettes and not cigars!)

Bart Sorgedrager

Published in :
Witness No. 3 
 2007 – Martin Parr
Published by Nazraeli Press