Nissan and what work means

Nissan: 30 Years On

A wonderful exhibition called ‘Nissan: 30 Years On‘ combines great photography and video with words that, not only compliments the images but also gives both an insight into Sunderland’s industrial heritage and the reasons why we work. The exhibition is at Arts Centre Washington.


Nissan began production in Sunderland in 1986, a time of relatively high unemployment for the area following on as it did from a sorry end to the miners’ strike and a period of decline in shipbuilding. Although Sunderland does well in industries such as digital and creative and has a lively cultural scene it would seem that it is its automotive industry that is making the major contribution to the cities prosperity and wellbeing. 

Photography and words

The major part of the exhibition are photographs of the Nissan plant in full work mode (something worth seeing in itself) alongside photographs of a number of Nissan workers both past and present. The photographs of the plant are combined with words and phrases that reflects both Sunderland’s industrial heritage and the reasons why people work at Nissan. The words are more than titles, they are part of the photograph, placed either at the head or foot of the photograph in a fairly large font. Similar in look to a watermark but more an intrinsic part of the story the photograph conveys. In one photograph which bears the words ‘Coal Face’ a Nissan worker labours close up under the bonnet of a car. An aerial photograph of robotic arms whirling, twirling and spot welding has the words ‘Open Cast’. Both of these are of course references to Sunderland’s industrial heritage but a question posed by the exhibition is why do today’s Nissan workers work there? One of the photographs has the words ‘Security Blanket’ – possibly a reference to the financial security work brings. Another has the words ‘Hobby Horse’, as in a child’s toy or pastime – possibly both a reference to being able to buy toys for the bairn or pursue a favourite pastime. A photograph of the interior of a car door looks like an aerial view of a golf course and has the words ‘Nine Iron’ – maybe some Nissan workers enjoy playing golf, who’d have thought.  

The photographs of the plant and the words chosen are a great combination and equally so are the portraits of Nissan workers with quotes on why they work at Nissan. Some of the Nissan workers give reasons such as gaining knowledge of the industry and extending their skills. Naturally some reasons are centred around money and what that can give you; provide for families, pay bills, have holidays and generally have the wherewithal to pursue life goals and do what you want in your free time. But there is another reason for working which has nothing to do with career or earning money. At least two of the workers quoted spoke of friends and friendship and maybe that is a large part of what work is or can be. Friendship, camaraderie or just simply having mates. On a bad day, in a post-caring world, that can seem a bit of an alien idea.  Just some nostalgia for the days when work was the shipyards and the mines, a time when we looked out for each other, maybe this exhibition proves that those needs still exist.

The exhibition also includes an absorbing video of the work processes in the plant called Tact Time (the title refers to the time spent on the allotted task). And, perhaps as a nod to Nissan’s Japanese history, some excellent haikus, my favourite begins “Female on forklift…”. 

The creative people

The photographs and video are by fine art and documentary photographer James Sebright. His portfolio website has some wonderful images from China, Tokyo, Hong Kong and the quite moving ‘… Syria before the War’, check out the barbershop photographs. The well chosen words are by the equally talented creative writer Rachel Cochrane. Her website showcases an array of her creative talent including podcaster and playwright and the statement that she is “particularly inspired by photography”, with this exhibition that certainly shines through. Both are local, a fact that probably accounts for the great degree of empathy they have with their subject. 

Exhibition book

Would I want to see anything more from this exhibition? Well yes I would. With all exhibitions I’ve enjoyed it’s always nice when a book of the exhibition is produced. A record of the wonderful images and words in the exhibition with a little bit of background information. This exhibition is an incredible record of Nissan and its place in the community and deserves to have a book made from it. Besides, and I’m not wishing this, post Brexit those jobs may be lost. Here’s hoping that kind of disaster is averted and we have the real thing a little while longer rather than just this very wonderful record of the way we worked.

Since first posting this Nissan’s Chief Executive, Carlos Ghosn, following on from guarantees by the government, has announced that Nissan is to make significant investment in the Sunderland plant. Sighs of relief all round… but a book of the exhibition would still be nice.

The exhibition ‘Nissan: 30 Years On‘ is on at Arts Centre Washington until 4 November 2017. 

About Stella MacQueen

Sheila and Stella sitting in a tree... K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
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1 Response to Nissan and what work means

  1. Reblogged this on Janet MacLeod Trotter and commented:
    Great review of fascinating exhibition on Nissan’s history in the North-East of England

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