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Photographer calls for Sunderland shipbuilders to feature in exhibition

Artist Tim Mitchell wants to hear from local shipbuilders from the 60s for a photography project

Tim Mitchell Untitled from the series A Fish Out of Water 2010: from Tim Mitchell's exhibition at National Class Centre in Sunderland
Untitled from the series A Fish Out of Water 2010: from Tim Mitchell's exhibition at National Class Centre in Sunderland

An artist is keen to hear from local shipbuilders from the late 1960s as part of a photography project which turns the focus on a dying industry.

For the past two years, London-based Tim Mitchell has been documenting the end-of-life recycling of the locally-built 5000-ton Royal Navy tanker, RFA Grey Rover.

His poignant large-scale images of its physical break-up, set against the bleak backdrop he found of an industry on the decline, are currently on show at the National Glass Centre in the town which co-commissioned the project.

But, while the overall picture is one of shipbuilding’s demise, it’s not over yet - in terms of the project anyway - and Tim now wants to track down any shipbuilders from the region who worked on the ship.

“It would be great to meet some of them,” said the 40-year-old who is keen to hear some individual stories to give him a full picture of the life of the mighty ship.

The RFA Grey Rover (A269) was built at Swan Hunter in 1969 and spent its career re-fuelling battleships.

It was de-commissioned in 2006, just weeks after its role in a drug seizure during patrol in the Caribbean where cocaine with a street value of £350m was found on a merchant vessel.

A Fish Out of Water from Tim Mitchell on Vimeo.


Then it was towed to Liverpool’s Canada Docks where Tim photographed its dismantling between 2009 and 2011.

“I went pretty much once a month for the two years and the project grew as it went along,” he explains. It now includes a time-lapse film of the deconstruction to accompany the exhibition of photographs, called Fish Out of Water, currently running at the glass centre, right on the riverbank, where it will remain on show in the Long Gallery until February 23.

“It came about when the curator of the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts in Sunderland (which is working in partnership with National Glass Centre) thought the work would chime there and this is the exhibition’s first solo outing.”

Included will be a chunk of the actual ship: “It’s a piece of steel, part of the hull, curled up like a piece of butter”, he says.

“In part of the recycling process, they’re biting pieces off the ship, tearing these little chunks off and it’s quite a thing to see, forcing cuts through half-inch steel.

“It might look quite ugly but there’s a beauty to it as well.

“People who come will get this different perspective of the ship.”

Of watching the process, he says: “I got to know the lads there which made it much more personal.

“And I met the captain who had spent a big chunk of his life on that ship. He came along a couple of times and he found it pretty emotional.

“When I started I thought time lapse would be interesting but quite a dry document of the process.

“But to my surprise when I started showing it to people - people who had nothing to do with shipbuilding - they found it quite emotional.”

The work he watched was not without its problems, as he discovered when he first joined social scientist Professor Nicky Gregson to document the process.

Not least among them was, of course, the sheer force needed to break up the massive superstructure which, after all, was built to withstand the rigours of a working life at sea.

Then there was asbestos to deal with that until now had been safely contained within its walls.

While health and safety and environmental protection are always high on the agenda in the UK, it’s a different matter on the other side of the world where, due to loopholes in the law, the practice allows for the majority of EU ships to be broken up on the beaches of Asia, with risks to both the local environment and lives.

Shipping has become something of an invisible industry, although 90% of all imports are shipped.

In previous work, Tim has highlighted global waste, in his collaborations with academia and industry to study the global cycle of production, distribution and consumption followed by re-production, recycling or disposal. Fish Out of Water amounts to a sad reflection of our times, when recycling or redundancy take the place of new construction in contrast to a once-thriving industry built on a proud reputation of skilled manual labour.

“Nationally, there isn’t much shipbuilding any more and the exhibition represents the sense of decline. We’re dealing with memories,” adds Tim.

He’d like to record interviews with local people talking about their memories of the ship or of local shipbuilding in general.

“I’d like to hear their personal anecdotes to give a rounded viewpoint so it’s not just one ship.

“I’ll try to do an oral history and I’ll be interested in anything they have to say, including the experience of people who have grown up next to a shipyard.”

Education also plays a part in his work and he’s produced a newspaper-style publication which is being distributed to local schools in the area and can be picked up for free at the exhibition.

“I’m looking at all ways to engage with people.”

Tim was a regular visitor to the region in his 20s when his girlfriend, now wife, was a student in Newcastle. “It’s really nice to be back in the region,” he says.

And anything he learns here will feed back into the project.

“I’m looking to develop it and maybe turn it into an interactive website that’s an art project, a documentary, an educational and a history project.

“I also want to tour the show around the different towns and cities where there was once shipbuilding and repeat the process, building up a national perspective.”

Anybody wanting to contact Tim can email him at mrtimmitchell@gmail.com


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