“I feel we live in a neo-liberal society with the cult of the individual at the forefront," says Noel Bowler, who spent five years photographing union meeting rooms in 14 countries
Modern working life is so frenetic, we often don’t get the chance to dwell on how it’s evolving, how secure it is, or how we’d cope if our jobs came under threat. Who are the people, or groups of people, fighting this seemingly inevitable trend? The people who see something noble and worthy of protection in work?
Noel Bowler provides a possible answer in his series Union, which is on show at Impressions Gallery from 04 July – 22 September. Taking us inside the meeting rooms and head offices of industrial unions, it introduces us to the people who try to safeguard labour rights.
Bowler portrays union offices in fourteen countries, ranging from Washington to Warsaw to his native Ireland. He invites us to consider office spaces, meeting rooms and boardrooms as empty, dormant chambers, heavy with a sense of suspended conversation. In doing so, he gives us the chance to consider how these beleaguered organisations – which date back to the nineteenth century – are adapting to today’s challenges.
Economists now openly talk about a third industrial age, an era of self-employment, flexible employee arrangements, and zero-hour contracts. Traditional work practices, they say, are just that – old-fashioned, a thing of the past. The rooms Bowler photographs are quiet, and yet their set ups suggest important summits and dramatic negotiations.
“Even the furniture seems dramatic and overthought,” Bowler tells BJP, “perhaps burdened under the weight of its own responsibilities.”
Bowler is fascinated by what we can learn from the built environment – Making Space, his first major series, portrayed rooms used for prayer by Muslim communities in his native Ireland. “I think viewer engagement is vital to the narrative,” Bowler says. “For me, allowing the viewer to populate the images within their own imagination is not only one of the strengths of this type of work, but of photography as a whole.”
Many of these rooms were chanced upon rather than sought out, a factor which gives Union a sense of authenticity. “I always take the rooms as I find them,” Bowler says. “As a rule I don’t rearrange or change anything within the frame.
“Where possible, I would spend up to an hour in each room on my own, just absorbing my thoughts and research and allowing instinct to decide the frame. For me, this process allows for those serendipitous moments to occur.”
One such moment is the image taken at the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations) building in Washington DC, America’s capital, and the heart of its federal government. “This was the office of the person assigned to escort me around the building. A room, otherwise I would never have seen,” Bowler says.
This five year project allowed Bowler to explore organisations as varied as the United Steelworkers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and alongside these interior shots, Bowler took portraits of union leaders. One of his portraits shows Bob Crow, for example, General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers in the UK from 2002 until his death in 2014 from a heart attack, just weeks after organising major industrial action across London’s transport networks.
There’s a sense of a palimpsest here; the distinct character of the unions communicated through the details that lie embedded in the many rooms, offering clues as to the attitudes and beliefs of those who inhabit them. A poster on one worker’s messy desk reads ‘Vote Socialism’, positioned next a photo of Karl Marx making the victory sign. In contrast, a meeting room, minimalistic and modern, portrays a Rene Gruau poster – more socialite than socialist.
“I feel we live in a neo-liberal society with the cult of the individual at the forefront, satisfied to let corporate power run things in the background,” Bowler says. “There seems to have been a shift in ideology, which basically promotes corporate individuality as good and collective non-corporate action as bad. So long as this ideology exists, I think unions will battle to find their position within it.
“That sense of ‘the battle still to come’ is very much present whether it’s to organise and reassure the labour market as a whole or to simply reaffirm its own position as a mechanism that’s still relevant.”
www.noelbowler.com Union by Noel Bowler is on show from 04 July – 22 September at Impressions Gallery, 7 Aldermanbury, Centenary Square, Bradford, BD1 1SD www.impressions-gallery.com Union by Noel Bowler is published by Kehrer, priced €48; the book includes an introduction by Ken Grant www.kehrerverlag.com