UK based New Yorker Janine Wiedel’s reputation as an observational photographer had been established by her late 60s work documenting political and social activism in the US. She had photographed the police occupation of Berkley in response to the establishment of People’s Park on derelict university land there. Janine later worked with the Black Panther movement too, before moving to the UK. Collections of this early work have been published by Cafe Royal Press here.
In 1977, Janine accepted an award to document life in the UK’s industrial heartland of the West Midlands. She chose to train her camera on the workers in the murky interiors of the mercurial world of heavy industry, a world that supported so many families across the region, a world few outside the factory gate knew at all. (My dad worked in a car component factory making clutches and brakes for Rover’s, Mini’s and more. For basically forever. 35 years. I think he took one phone call at work in all those years and I have no idea what the inside of that place looked like.)
Janine’s work evolved into a two year project and became a book and installation exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, the ATV centre in Birmingham and The Stock-on-Trent Museum and Art Gallery in 1980.
One of the photos featured a young boy waiting for his dad at the factory gate, that boy, some 40 years later is author, screenwriter and educator Andy Conway (and most importantly friend of outsideleft - we’re giving our plaques soon!).
Janine’s work has recently been revived by, and is currently on display at the supremely great Hive Community Hub in Birmingham (UK’s) Jewellery Quarter, (until March 2022) And a collection of these images has been published by the esteemed photography archive, Cafe Royal Books.
Janine spoke to Outsideleft about the work, the exhibition and her career… But first a movie…
That boy is Andy Conway
OUTSIDELEFT: I am really interested in your background, way way back-ground in architecture. I have known so many architects, there's a woman I know who was stuck at a low level doing door handles for large buildings for a while and a guy I knew who could design anything so long as it was made from corrugated steel. And of course Vincent Abloh, Kanye West... Their architecture connection, Ice Cube... I think.What made you begin and end your dalliance with architecture? Do you think that experience... informs your photography?
JANINE WIEDEL: I grew up in NYC, which no doubt has had a big influence on my love of large diverse multi-layered cities where one can roam about unnoticed. At an early age I became an observer. I explored neighbourhoods I might not have ventured into had I not felt that I was invisible. This sense of invisibility allowed me freedom… and perhaps that same sense has enabled me to explore and work in a variety of places throughout my career.
At eighteen, I went off to the University of Colorado to study architecture with dreams of changing the world and creating beautiful living environments. The course was very dry and technical. There were only 5 women on the course and after two years we were taken aside and told that it was “a career for men” and that “we would be married by 20 and were not capable of dealing with engineers”. I left the University and moved to California where I studied painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Institute but soon realised that photography was more in tune with my restless nature. In painting I was confined to 4 walls and confronted with an empty canvas. With photography the elements are already there and you just have to be fast enough to catch them. Above all I was again able to have adventures and explore the streets. The camera gave me both a purpose and an excuse.
California in the late 60s had many causes to fight for. The USA was losing the war in Vietnam and friends were coming back in body bags draped with American flags. The African American population was fed up with waiting for their rights and their freedom. Martin Luther King had been killed and the non-violent Civil Rights Movement that he led had failed. The urban Black population were living in poverty. There was rising unemployment and public services and schools were failing their children.
In 1969, my camera led me to the Black Panther Movement and Berkeley Student Riots.
OUTSIDELEFT: You shot the West Midlands (or at least the published work I have seen) in black and white - a conscious choice, providing well not extra authenticity to the images of working people, but... Something. What influenced that choice?
JANINE WIEDEL: At the time black and white was certainly my choice for that particular project but it was also a practical decision. At that time, if you wanted to develop and work on your images you needed to use b/w. Processing colour was too complicated and the quality was not good especially in a bad lighting situation.
At the time I was certainly seeing in b/w which I felt simplified the message and got rid of the distraction of colour. Over the decades vision changes. Today colour is the norm.
Today if I were doing the same project I might well use colour as I now see in colour.
OUTSIDELEFT: How had you ended up in the West Midlands - it's a long way from New York.
JANINE WIEDEL: I came over to the UK in 1970 with no intention of staying but half a century on I am still here.
My earlier photography experiences in California very much influence my future direction. I have always continued to have a long-term project on the go. I aim to show the people/places that are standing up against the system either by protesting or by trying to retain a way of life at odds with the mainstream and to tell the stories that the media either misrepresent or do not show at all.
In the early 70s before the West Midlands project, I spent time living with an Inuit family on Baffin Island and for five years, on and off, documenting the traveller communities in Eire.
In 1977 when I was awarded the West Midlands Arts Bursary to spend a year documenting the 5 counties of the area however I wanted. I decided to concentrate on industry. The area was known as “the industrial heartland of Britain”. I wanted to discover how much of this still existed and to document those working lives that were in danger of disappearing.
The late 1970s saw a series of economic crises. Industries were struggling against the advances of technology, unfavourable international exchange rates and decades of underinvestment. Small factories were being replaced by mass production. Even before the ravages of Thatcherism, coal and steel industries were battling for their future with national protests and strike action.
I bought an old VW van and set about converting it into a temporary home and darkroom. I would spend a couple of weeks at a time photographing inside the various industries. I would then go back to London to process the bulk of the work and to assess what I had taken.
This grew into a two year project and became a book and installation exhibition at the Photographers Gallery in 1979 and then the ATV centre in Birmingham and The Stock-on-Trent Museum and Art Gallery in 1980.
OUTSIDELEFT: And it seems like, despite your amazing career and experience, you were really impacted by how industrial, how almost violent industry is? I will say I have worked in a metal factory. Pressing panels for Mini's. But, stopped, did not do that for long. At the time, some people couldn't understand why I would stop doing that. It was a job. It was a job my grammar school hadn't prepared me for, if maybe even, for anything.
JANINE WIEDEL: The entire project was such an amazing experience as well as a huge learning curve. I try to enter new situations without preconceived ideas (visual or otherwise). Long term projects allow the luxury of getting beyond initial reactions, which are inevitably based primarily on the ‘baggage’, knowledge and experience we have collected over the years.
I think that few people outside of those working in the industries have any concept of what the environments are like.
Before going down the mines people had told me that today mining was like going down the London underground! This common myth couldn’t have been further from the truth. The conditions were dreadful. The work was backbreaking, filthy and exhausting. The miners were continually facing physical danger as well as long term medical problems. Yet the comradery amongst the men was strong despite or perhaps because of the fierce battles and strikes.
OUTSIDELEFT: How did you feel when you entered those spaces back then, about health and safety, squalidity, - those places seem like accidents waiting to happen.
JANINE WIEDEL: Health and safety hardly existed which of course for me was in many ways wonderful as it allowed me more freedom to spend time in the various work places and to move about photographing freely. There were however a few times in the steel mills when I was happy that someone was keeping an eye on me and rescued me from stepping back into a vat of molten iron.
It is important to me that my work does not confirm a stereotype of what I expect to see. Instead I like to observe and listen, with the aim of discovering and then capturing what emerges. Quite often the earlier photographs get discarded. Photography is always a two-way exchange, and with trust and time you get to see and learn more.
OUTSIDELEFT: But it's about the people. As a photographer does it feel weird at all, that while you have captured a moment of a facet of life of a person. working class people in this instance, whose lives fuel this (and many) countries but whose lives are scarcely recorded, not valued, and now so many of them are gone, and what is left behind...
JANINE WIEDEL: Yes, I feel that is very true and that is also why it has been so important for me to have this exhibition up today in Birmingham 45 years on where it can be seen by those who I photographed as well as those who have no knowledge of what these industries were like to work in. We have to remember that there were no mobile phones at the time recording every moment of people's lives. People’s lives at work were rarely seen and if they were documented the images were not seen by the families. At the time most of those I photographed were very surprised that I was interested in photographing them at work. And when I did meet any of the families and showed them the photographs, they were amazed.
People were photographed by family members or on special occasions but not in their workplace and not by outsiders.
OUTSIDELEFT: The anomaly that you are a New York person - in the UK. What do you miss most, some little thing about New York?
JANINE WIEDEL: That’s the hardest question yet! I have lived in the UK for so long and so much of US culture has spread over here. However, I do miss the seasons, the clear light, fresh chestnuts from the street sellers, NY rooftops and fire escapes, fresh summer corn on the cob. I also think I have also never quite come to grips with the subtleties between what English people say and what they mean.
OUTSIDELEFT: Wasn't there an edict to prevent the Birmingham economy from 'overgrowing' lest it become a threat to London's hegemony?
JANINE WIEDEL: I’m not sure about edicts but there was definitely a conscious and hard-fought reorientation of the British economy away from previous industrial heartlands like Birmingham and towards the City of London and the financial sector. This went hand in hand with an assault on local government, the trade union movement and working-class power.
OUTSIDELEFT: And now after a while the exhibition is back at the Hive. (If you did come back) how did you feel about returning to an old stamping! ground after so long. Have many of the original 'cast' members gotten to see your work, like Andy Conway did... (I'll explain about him in the final piece...)
JANINE WIEDEL: Yes, it’s been absolutely fascinating to return to the area and to try to retrace the footsteps. But the most exciting and rewarding part has been re-connecting with some of the people who have somehow found my work on-line and been in touch. The most amazing connection so far has been with Andy Conway who was a young school boy at the factory gates in 1977. He is now a script writer, a novelist and a filmmaker.
I am hoping to re-connect with many others and perhaps do a follow up project.
OUTSIDELEFT: You've had a long relationship with Cafe Royal Books - we love those guys - how did that come about - do you have anything planned for the future?
JANINE WIEDEL: Yes, I have so far done 13 books with Craig Atkinson including a box set “Industry, West Midlands 1977-1979”. This has 7 titles and has the photographs from the main 6 industries included in Vulcan’s Forge Exhibition.
Craig Atkinson began Café Royal Books in 2005 and has since built up an absolutely incredible archive of British documentary work from the 70s and 80. I am so pleased to be published by him as it has given my past projects a new life.
My next publication with him will be on Inuits on Baffin Island, the Arctic in 1973
OUTSIDELEFT: And beyond next for you?
JANINE WIEDEL: As always, I have several ongoing projects including protests and multicultural communities in London.
I am also working on a new book with Bluecoat Press. This will be in many ways a retrospective of sorts.