TW: I lived alongside the river Mersey in New Brighton for 25 years. The river is in the middle of the area I photograph, Liverpool on one side, Birkenhead and New Brighton on the other. The river was fundamental to the growth of Liverpool as a seaport and the shipyard in Birkenhead. So I’d photograph the river itself, the docks and eventually the shipyard.
The main employer at the time was this big shipyard, Cammell Laird. They made warships—ships that went to the American Civil War—pioneered the use of iron in shipbuilding, built ships with famous names like the Mauritania and Ark Royal.
I knew some people that worked there, so I would ask if I could go in to photograph. And they said no, because they made nuclear submarines.
Eventually, after a long fight against its closure, as the shipyard started to wind down, I was allowed go in, but security had to accompany me, and these first pictures were generally poor, of the riverfront, giant cranes, slipways, construction halls, dry docks—all exteriors. Later, in the final months of the yard, I was allowed to move freely, wherever I liked, on my own. Many of these pictures are of abandoned and closed-down work spaces, private rest areas—separate or hidden—arrangements of chairs and lockers, pictures on the wall, family snaps next to pinups and graffiti on the wall. These became the most interesting pictures. I would sometimes photograph the men that were going to be made redundant that day—you know, it was going to be their last day—and I would take a portrait and then I would maybe go on to the party and take pictures.
Liverpool is famous for two things, its football team and the Beatles. The cultural elements in the city, football and music along with drinking and socializing. (That was the hardest thing to photograph—middle-aged and older men especially. A couple of years ago, I was made “artist in residence” at a wild karaoke pub in Liverpool city center. In the end I gave up photographing and instead used digital video, but that’s another story.)
Every Saturday I would go to the football to photograph. The fans arriving, mainly men, the chaotic streets, around the ground. I’d done that on and off, every Saturday for nearly fifteen years. But in the morning, on the way to the game, there’s a wonderful open-air market. It’s usually called Paddy’s market because all the Irish used to sell second-hand clothes there. There’s a big connection between Ireland and Liverpool (300,000 Irish landed in 1847 alone, on the way to America and Australia). Maybe this helped me—being Irish born, many of the faces kind of seemed familiar. They looked like my mother or cousins. Ordinarily women would go there and they would bring their daughters along. Virtually no men—because it wasn’t in the town center, these women would be more themselves. They have a different face on when they’re in town, and it’s very crushed and packed. I got to know the market traders that sell stuff, often “off the back of a lorry” or “seconds,” or whatever. It’s a bit shady, but it was a great place to photograph. So that was another project. And the football was another one, and other things happen.
There was a mental hospital closing down on the outskirts of Liverpool—Rainhill. Someone asked me if I’d like to photograph that, and I said okay. That was complicated. For me it’s hard to go into a place like that and just take pictures. I’d end up talking to these people, getting to know them, having lunch with them, even staying overnight. It was a privilege—it made me realize that could be me; we can all be pushed to the breaking point. A project that was six weeks became, like, two years, but it was a long way away so I had to go there on the bus. I’d photograph on the bus all the way there and all the way back. The bus kind of tied all these projects together, because I always went places on it and I’d go across the river on the Mersey ferry, and photograph there. The bus terminus was at the Pier Head, where the boat docked. This was a hanging out point for retired sailors, dock workers, teenagers, as well as passengers traveling to all kinds of destinations throughout the city, so I’d always spend half an hour or so checking out the area. And this became another box of prints, work in progress.
My son was at school where I lived, in New Brighton, and they wanted some publicity pictures. I said, okay, but let me take photos for myself as well. And again I went on to the school for maybe three months. Opposite my house is the park where everyone hangs around and things happen. It’s by the river and it’s close to the Chelsea Reach nightclub. I bring the dog, I bring the kids every day. That became another body of work.
JWD: So essentially you have these different things that seem quite specific but when you end up going there and taking pictures it’s just about the people and the environment and what all the little details say about them.
TW: Yeah, it all kind of overlaps.
JWD: But do you think it’s specific to where you’re located—the whole Liverpool area? Or is it something more universal?
TW: To me it could be anywhere, but it obviously is very specific to Liverpool. They are a particular type of people—mixture of races—Lancastrian (in your face), Welsh, Irish, and all the other nationalities a seaport brings to a city, and a long history, of “moraI disorder” and an extreme sense of humor! I like them a lot. Undoubtedly they’re more themselves on the street—less reserved than in most places.
JWD: But you never have a set agenda.
TW: No. I don’t have agendas. I go out and take the pictures and you figure out what they mean afterward when the project’s finished. The camera is asking questions. You put it all together and you see what it adds up to. Whenever I’ve gone out with something specific in mind, it never works for me.
JWD: Do you think that with your camera you are looking at a positive side of things, just by nature?