There is a lot of debate these days about the role of journalism in our daily lives. Questions are asked as to where we get our information from, and the all-pervading accusation of ‘fake news’ is something which causes a real stooshie amongst the general public and also in the journalistic trade.
It’s easy to look back and imagine that there were glory days when everything we read and saw was trustworthy and of maximum veracity. This week, as the unfolding nightmare of COVID-19 surrounds our every move, the role of the journalist in narrating these historic events should not be undervalued. My mind drifted back to an assignment I did for the Independent newspaper in 1998. It’s not so much the subject (more of that later) which made me nostalgic, but rather the location. The city of Dundee, famous in modern history for the ‘Three Js’ – jute, jam and journalism.
Let’s muddle them up and take a look at jam first. There is indeed still a traditional Dundee marmalade maker which identifies itself with the city, although production takes place a few miles outside the city, up the Angus coast. The sweet smell of Seville oranges being lovingly cooked and permeating the city streets is, alas, no more. And ditto jute. And this is where my photographs come in.
Part of my brief as a photographer working for the Independent in Scotland was to ferret out interesting local stories which would be of relevance to the newspaper’s wider readership across the UK. In those days, the ‘Indy’ was very much image-led. More-often-than not, a story would be published on the strength of an interesting or arresting image. It was not uncommon to find the story itself wasn’t actually part of the package, rather the photograph would be emblazoned across the broadsheet’s page with nothing more than a deep caption to aid navigation and inform the reader. For a photographer this was a great challenge – and opportunity. Having to constantly think not only about an interesting story, but also whether the illustration would be strong enough to make the paper meant you were always on the look out for little gems and nuggets which would first-and-foremost make a good picture.
I stumbled across Tay Spinners in the way I discovered many of my stories during that period. A small item was mentioned in the local paper in Dundee telling us that Europe’s last remaining jute spinning mill was about to close, due to delays and red tape with the delivery of the raw material from Bangladesh. With supplies no longer reliable, Tay Spinners in the city’s Arbroath Road, took the decision to close its door for good at the end of 1998.
Jute spinning had begun in Dundee in 1838 and at its height the city – which was nicknamed Jutopolis – boasted 150 mills with a workforce of around 40,000, both men and women. The steep decline set in during the 1950s with the invention and manufacture of cheaper, less labour-intensive synthetic alternatives to jute, mainly used in the carpet industry. Ironically, when Tay Spinners closed, it was seen as a modern and profitable factory, far removed in atmosphere from the famed ‘dark, Satanic mills’ of old. Nevertheless, the sad decision to close did present me with an opportunity and I was lucky to be allowed into the facility, to meet and mingle with the workers and photograph undisturbed.
Like many such assignments, the priority was to get a photograph which could hold a page. Beyond that, any ideas of shooting a wider feature would have to wait for another day – if that day ever came. In the world of an endless, rolling cycle of news, chances are I would be on to the next story the following day and the opportunity to return quite often couldn’t happen due to work pressures and distances involved. On the day of the original assignment I shot everything on colour film (this was in the pre-digital age) and used a local newspaper office to process the negatives and wire it to the picture desk in London. It duly appeared – with a three-line caption – the following day. As I had a gap in my diary, I returned a few days later to Dundee and managed then to spend more time getting to know the workforce and the processes involved in their jobs without the pressure of a deadline. This time, maybe with an eye to producing something more lyrical and with a more historical feel to it, I chose to shoot not only in monochrome with my 35mm camera, but using my beloved Hasselblad XPan, my favourite-ever machine. Using it on a day-to-day deadlined assignment was a non-starter (the negative, with dimensions of 65mm x 24mm couldn’t be scanned on my portable device). Instead, with time not an issue, I produced a small body of work which built on the colour images I made on the original trip.
Although the black-and-white images have not been published or exhibited at all widely, they did eventually come to the attention of the National Galleries of Scotland and a set of four were purchased for the nation’s photography collection. Given the opportunity I do wish I could have spent even more time at Tay Spinners, but sometimes you just have to be grateful for what you get. I was on that occasion.
Which leads me finally to the last of the Js in Dundee: journalism. It’s still there, although it too is in a much slimmed-down, denuded form. I suspect I would not recognise what passes for a newsroom or picture desk these days. All my work is done remotely if I do shoot assignments for newspapers. And with decreasing dimensions of publications and shrinking circulations, the opportunities to showcase a simple story and mark an important moment in a city and country’s history are becoming almost as extinct as the ‘Three Js’ are in Dundee.
There’s certainly no prospect of jam tomorrow!