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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Industrial action

As an outdoor photographer I have some skills that allow me to work in adventure sports and outdoor activities with a degree of comfort. One of the skillsets that I worked to aquire is my "Working at height, rigging and rescue' ticket. The experience enables me to undertake work on industrial sites which is a very different theatre of operation to the crag, believe me!

So this weeks' Real Life Assignment involves a trip to the Exxon Mobile oil refinery at Fawley, Southampton to shoot a new safety lanyard used by the scaffolders on site. Sounds dull? We'll see.

First of all, my industry expert pal and myself needed to get on site - a task that took 4 months of badgering, emails and phone calls, before Exxon agreed to let us in. It would have been way easier to set this thing up on a building site someplace but my client (Spanset) like things to be authentic and this particular piece of kit was specifically designed for the refinery and was not in use anywhere else - so the photos had to be at Fawley.

A 6 hour drive overnight from Yorkshire put us in a Holiday Inn, 10 minutes drive from the gate, at midnight on Sunday. Monday morning we presented ourselves at the security gate. Step one - go watch the basic site safety health and safety induction video in the portacabin. Step two - fill out these forms. Do you have cameras? Well you're going to need a pass for them. Now fill out some more forms and sit over there until one of the security guys comes and gets you. OK, he's here, so put all your kit into his van and go for more satefy briefings. Are you getting the picture here? Basically, an oil refinery is just one big terrorist target waiting to get hit and just about everything in here can hurt, maim or kill you. There's hot steam, and poisonous gas and stuff that can fall on your head from 200 feet up and so on.

Anyway - turns out we are not allowed to go anywhere on site without a minder and we definately, definately can't go over there, or in there and certainly not over there. Now it's time for another safety video and a check list. And it's a big site too. 5 square miles. Let me just repeat that. The Exxon Mobile Fawley oil refinery is 5 square miles of pipes, tunnels, towers, ladders and machinery. It's actually the biggest refinery in Europe and it produces - well everything in your life that is made from oil-derived products. Everything here is a massive scale. And I've just come to photograph a little bit of safety kit.

 Next stop - get changed. You'll need these industry approved steel toecapped boots, then this CE marked flameproof boiler suit (there's a lot of flammable hazards in an oil refinery). Next, you'll want to strap on this emergancy respirator and nose clip and clip on this CO2 detector. Now for your industry standard crash hat and ear defenders, your safety glasses (get caught on site without these and you're history - shown the gate - do not return). You will also need to stuff these over-glasses into your pocket just in case there's some sort of gas leak and in your other pocket stuff these big goggles - you know, just in case. Oh, nearly forgot - you must wear these rubber gloves at all times! Bloody hell - I'm a photographer, how am I supposed to use a camera with goggles and gloves? That's your problem mate.

Ok, I'm suited and booted. I'm gloved and goggled. I'm sweating like a pig in my over-sized boiler suit and I can't hear a thing with my ear defenders on. Ready to do your best creative work then?

We are led into the grid. The noise is horrendous. The hiss of steam, clanking and banging of construction crews doing whatever - I realise why everyone has to wear ear defenders. We weave through muddy corridors of pipework and towers and steel stuff whilst gangs of workers do whatever they are doing all around. This looks like hell to me. I can't imagine calling this my office! But these guys do, 24/7.

Actually shooting the scaffolders at work is no easier. I'm allowed to use flash (thank God) because this unit is shut down for maintenance,  but I'm not allowed to go on the structure to place it. Luckily I thought of that. I have sealed food containers with flash guns and Pocket Wizards inside and a big roll of gaffer tape. I tell the scaff guys to tape the flashes to the bars - well I say "tell' - actually I yelled and hoped they heard me. Apparently they did.

And so we went to work - an hour of shooting whatever angles I could get, trying to think creatively and find ways of illustrating a small safety lanyard being used in the correct way. When it was over, we trooped back out to the van, back to the office and slumped onto plastic chairs utterly exhausted by the whole thing. Then drove 6 hours back up the motorway.  So this is industrial photography eh? Cool!