Ask The Sea, by Peter Iain Campbell.
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, of Document Scotland – Can you tell us how this cool work came about?
Peter Iain Campbell – “Ask The Sea” is the follow up project to my “Starlings On Fire” work which I shot while I was working on a Drilling Rig in the central North Sea between 2014-2016. I never felt that the “Starlings….” project was complete as a body of work, even although its production was directly influenced by the ebb and flow of my offshore work schedule and then the subsequent ending of the Rig’s drilling contract with the Operator. I spent one year between August 2016 and 2017 moving between different Rigs and Platforms, with limited opportunity to shoot, but this was a really critical time in that it provided me with the realisation that a much larger body of work was out there waiting to be undertaken. So much had changed within the Oil and Gas Industry in the short period of time that I was working offshore – I joined a brand new Drilling Rig at a time when there was a back order of state-of-the-art Drilling Rigs being built in the Far East and here in Scotland there was much talk about proposed oil and gas revenues being the basis for an economically stable Independent Scotland. Within two years, the industry was experiencing a deep recession, the price of a barrel of oil or gas equivalent had dropped by 75% and the future of the industry in the North Sea was looking particularly bleak with a number of discussions focusing on decommissioning. I had completed what I had initially set out to do, so I knew my days working offshore were numbered and I set out to try and produce a far more encompassing documentary project which was almost like a form of visual mapping across the whole of the Scottish sector of the North Sea.
I had made good connections with most of the crew I worked with on the Drilling Rig and my sweet talking started with the logistics and operations team when I was back onshore. I wanted to produce a larger body of work which would be shot from the perspective of the Platform Supply Vessels, so it made sense to start with the operator that I had been working for offshore for two years. The oil and gas industry is extremely difficult to penetrate from the outside and at every level it pays to know someone on the inside.
In what way does it differ from the black and white? This looks to be from supply vessels as opposed to the rigs themselves (I may be mistaken)?
Yes, that’s right. “Ask The Sea” in its current form has been produced entirely from various Platform Supply Vessels that are contracted by the main operators to service their Rigs and Platforms. “Starlings…..” is set entirely on the Drilling Rig. That said, even although “Ask The Sea” followed “Starlings….” it has almost become the umbrella project for the entire work and prior to lockdown, I had actually been in the process of negotiating to extend the reach of the project by going back onto the installations and shooting from that perspective again, which would have been damn exciting. I’m hoping that’ll still happen.
Are you working on these supply boats, on these trips?
No. It’s solely photography.
Do you approach taking the phots differently when you’re doing b/w or colour? How are you seeing the images?
With “Starlings…..” there was a conscious effort to shoot a large proportion of the project in b&w. I have always been fascinated and influenced by early photography’s documentation of heavy industry and I wanted to reference that period with that work. There are also so many aspects of that life offshore that strangely resonate with what you would imagine to be our distant industrial past. The seascapes needed to be in colour though – that was my escape, my sanctuary and some of those mornings and nights were sublime and a strong counterpoint to the intensity of the operations onboard the rig. With “Ask The Sea”, while I do still use black and white film, its more for punctuation, the majority of the work being shot on colour film, which is certainly how I wanted to present the typologies of the installations.
How did the book come about with Iain Sergeant?
I follow Iain’s publishing company, ‘Another Place Press’, on Instagram and being a super keen collector of photobooks I have a few that they have published over the years. A couple of months ago, Iain started to promote a new project they were working on called ‘Field Notes’, which were a series of Limited Edition Zines showcasing contemporary photography projects that explore our relationship with place. Now, “Ask The Sea’ is still very much in the works and I’m probably only about 1/3 of the way through shooting it, but I thought I’d submit what I had done so far to see if it would be something that Iain would be interested in publishing – thankfully he was.
What was the editing process for the book, how do you approach editing your work when you’ve shot it over a few years (as seems to be with your rig work)?
I had quite a lot of work from across both projects, but I thought that for the zine it would make sense to only submit the work from “Ask The Sea”. There were two folders of images that I submitted to Another Place Press. One folder had approximately 20 photographs of various installations, while the other folder contained portraits and other details. I had mentioned to Iain that he could run with a zine that contained only the typologies of the Rigs/Platforms or a combination of the two sets. The editing and design process seemed really smooth. 26 images were selected from both folders, with Iain producing an initial design, which was great and only required minor tweaks in terms of layout, rearranging of images, removals and additions.
Is there a lot more of the work, how many rolls of film are in the whole shoot would you say?
It’s strange because the “Starlings…” project in my mind seems much larger and was completely immersive. I’d live that life for 3 weeks straight, balancing on-shift work with off-shift freedom to concentrate on the project, yet I’ve accumulated far more work for “Ask The Sea” in the equivalent time frame, but with less trips offshore. It’s been less intensive, but more focused. I’ve shot about 250 rolls of Medium Format film (120) across both projects and I’ve used digital to shoot the seascapes at night while I’ve been on the Supply Vessels – film is just not going to cut it at 2am when there’s swell, unless you intentionally want that movement.
As I mentioned before though, there’s still so much more of the project to shoot, which is really exciting, but deeply frustrating with the current challenge that we find ourselves facing.
For those who haven’t been in the North Sea in a swell at 2am, how is it trying to photograph? What are the challenges you’re facing?
I couldn’t shoot this project in the Winter – the weather would be too severe, so Easter, Summer and Autumn are the best seasons. My first trip on a Platform Supply Vessel was in April 2018 and the weather was pretty wild – 45 mph winds, so trying to shoot was almost comical. I photograph the Rigs/Platforms from outside the Bridge and in that wind and being so exposed it’s almost impossible to shoot steady, without the fear of being blown off the vessel. Ironically, I’ve got fairly dreadful sea-legs, but the sea sickness tablets work a treat and I’ve managed to adjust to the movement over time, although when I first go offshore it takes about 6 hours until I’m fairly steady on my feet.
With the night shots I like to try and capture sharp images of the installations, but tripods are essentially completely redundant because even in the calmest of waters there’s still movement and you need to shoot hand-held. My colour film is only rated at either 160 or 400 ISO and at night or pre-dawn you’re generally looking at 12,800 ISO, so digital is ideal for that. As I’m mostly shooting in square format on film the digital night seascapes seem to compliment the work by having a more cinematic appearance.
Where does the title of the book come from?
The title comes from a poem called ‘Coda’ by Basil Bunting.
What’s your intention for the images, for what you wish them to say?
I had always looked at the project as being something of a time-capsule for a future generation that looks back at a history when there were as many as between 110-120 oil and gas installations spread across the Scottish sector of the North Sea. Most people probably have a singular vision of what an oil rig looks like, but they’re mostly all unique in their design. I’m really interested in how people react to them and what they represent, which can be very polarised and rightly so – the impact on our environment is clear, yet when we started extracting oil from the North Sea in 1975, huge feats of engineering utterly transformed our economy. I like the notion of taking the viewer on a dystopian journey through the eyes of the people that work out there.
How do the people you work with treat you and the idea of your project? The people seem a little ‘remote’ in your images, was there a conscious decision by you to not make it about the men, the workers and their personalities? Is it more about the structures, the industry?
I have to say everyone has generally been really supportive of the work, either when I was working on the Rig or more recently when I’ve been going out on the Supply Vessels. The portraits are really important to me and as my role on the vessel is solely that of photographer I have a lot of time to move around the vessel, looking for shots that I think will work as portraits. At times, I’ll capture the people as I see them, but then I’m also comfortable taking control of how and where they’re shot and I do like the interpretation of those to be fairly open. I think as the project continues there’ll be more of an emphasis on the people.
Are there plans to exhibit the work anywhere, or has it been entering photo collections?
Yes, I’m right in the middle of discussions to have work from both projects exhibited at a major museum down in London as part of a year long exhibition with 5 other photographers around the theme of contemporary maritime industries. That’s very cool and exciting.
What’s next for you?
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can get back out to sea this Summer, but we’ll just have to wait and see what the developments are in terms of the lockdown. I lecture part-time at the City of Glasgow College, so most project work tends to take place during the Easter and Summer months. I’ve also been working on a project with the RAF for the last two years and that’s nearing completion, so hopefully I can get back onto that in the next couple of months as well. Strange times.
How is the book doing? What link can people buy it from?
The zine is limited to 100 copies and is available from Another Place Press:-
What are the links to your website and social media?
Thanks for sharing your work again.
It was a pleasure. Thanks Jeremy.