If You Can Piss...
Darren Thiel talks to David O'Mara
Darren Thiel is a sociologist. His book Builders involved field research in the building trade. He spoke to David O’Mara about photographing on building sites.
Darren Thiel: How did you come to be photographing on construction sites?
David O'Mara: I moved from Ireland to London in 2001 and I happened to get a job on construction sites. I thought it would be a temporary thing but, as time went on, it became a much more long-term job. I was working as an artist and using the job to fund the practice and also living in London. A relative of my partner was friends with someone who had a painting company so they introduced me. Their words were, ‘Oh you’ve been to art college, then you’ll know how to hold a brush, that’s ok’. I think it was a bit of overestimation of my abilities!
It was some time before I started taking photographs. The whole building site environment was very alien to me so I didn’t really have the confidence to introduce a camera. I was just trying to get along with people and find my place. I had this crisis of identity: at some point I got to thinking, ‘rather than being a photographer artist, now I’m more of a painter and decorator on a building site’. So I wanted some way of claiming back some of that identity. I started carrying a camera with me as a means of developing work or producing work and as part of my identity. And I was intrigued by the houses I was working in. We were working in old houses. So it was a combination of those things.
Darren Thiel: So, you’ve been working in and documenting your life in construction for nearly 15 years.
David O'Mara: It is a long time. I wouldn’t take photographs on every site. I’d go onto a site and judge the mood, or how you fit into it. So it was never my primary project but, after about ten years I realised I had a huge archive of photographs that I could use or could edit down and make something of.
Darren Thiel: Can you explain what’s meant by ‘If you can piss…’?
David O'Mara: Painters don’t come from a trade background. That’s quite important in the building site hierarchy so you are fairly low in the pecking order. If you are a painter you hear people say, ‘If you can piss, you can paint’. My earlier project had a much more pretentious title, Erfahrung, which is German for ‘experience’ and was used by Husserl in his phenomenology about the moment between experience and falling back into the past. I was very insecure about my identity and wanted to prove I wasn’t just a decorator, I was also an artist. But I think at some point, I saw it for what it was. What’s the point in trying to dress it up? It’s more interesting to give a realistic account of the daily grind. ‘If you can piss…’ is part of that colloquial environment that you are in. You work out quite early on that within the building trade there is a ‘them and us’ mentality with the clients or the project manager. ‘If you can piss…’ is a signifier of being the worker, the vocabulary of the worker.
Darren Thiel: To me, there are two main things that jump out from your images. There are the ephemeral patterns and textures of the construction process. Then there is another side, suggestive of the dark and claustrophobic nature of the work. Is that something you are consciously trying to show?
David O'Mara: The textures are always very interesting when you are stripping back the surfaces and you come across all the various layers of history, paint, wallpaper or plaster. After painting over them a few times I start to feel, ‘I should have photographed that when I had the chance and now I’ve got a blank wall in front of me’. So it’s born out of regret from previously not capturing it. My interest trails off when the building starts getting finished.
I do find the work very claustrophobic and there is that conflict for me in not particularly wanting to be there but having to be there. If it’s good and you’re working with nice people it’s a lot easier. But then there’s that sense of working to the next tea break, or looking at your clock, or ‘when’s lunchtime?’ and then working on again.
Darren Thiel: So, as a construction worker time itself is an issue for you and your photography is a way of rescuing that?
David O'Mara: Yes, because I get to the end of the week and think, ‘that’s five days I’ve just wasted!’ Also, I have been doing the work for fifteen years and there is very little of it I can actually remember: that repetition – another job, another scene – is all compressed down. So the taking of photographs was another way of documenting the daily things I would normally just forget.
Darren Thiel: Why black and white and why film? Wouldn’t it be simpler to use a little digital camera?
David O'Mara: Personally, I like film. I process the films myself and I’ll scan them or go to a darkroom and print them up. That became an important thing for me – going to the Photofusion darkrooms in Brixton and being completely separate – it was an escape for me to just concentrate on printing photographs; to balance up my life between work and not work. As convenient as digital is, there is that nice sense of seeing the processes and manipulating the images by hand; burning in or holding back, seeing the image appear in the developing tray. I never really got into digital, it never had the same appeal for me as film photography.
Darren Thiel: You said that your art, as well as a way of dealing with time, is also a way of trying to maintain or understand your own identity. Can you tell me more about that?
David O'Mara: When you leave art school, which I did in 2000, you are unsure about when you can start calling yourself an artist. You meet artists and they say, ‘Oh, I’m an artist’ in a blasé sort of a way, and they say ‘Do you have a studio somewhere?’ Meanwhile, I’m just about affording my rent, living in London, let alone having a studio. I might have felt like an artist or a photographer on the building site, I definitely felt like a builder in that world. It would feel as if I were standing in the middle of it in my dirty work clothes.
Darren Thiel: A number of your images are of you or your co-workers’ bodies and some of them are of your own feet, looking down. Does that somehow reflect how you feel as a construction worker?
David O'Mara: Photographs of my own feet, which I take quite a lot, is that idea of placing myself within the frame of activity. I’m part of it and I am just as dirty and messy as the people I’m photographing. My images are from the first person, it’s about my experience rather than trying to develop a more general picture of construction.
It is handy for people not to see you taking photographs; I might not necessarily be looking through the viewfinder, I might be pointing the camera in another direction. You change the whole dynamic if you stand there with the camera up to your eye and point it directly at them. It could be surreptitious but it is part of being in the environment. Someone could be up to their knees in dirt. I think that a lot of people looking at the photographs will find the dirt quite alien and certainly wouldn’t associate it with their own houses: having that layer of crap on the floor or people wearing heavy work-boots in their sitting room. In that respect their domestic space is colonised by the workers.
Darren Thiel: I think of my own experience of walking around with a notepad. People are asking ‘what the hell are you doing? Why are you interested?’ So I am intrigued to know what your co-workers think of you walking around with a camera taking pictures of dust, dirt and boots.
David O'Mara: To be honest with you, not a whole lot of reaction. I think it’s partly because the camera is a small pocket camera so it’s discreet. It would also probably take up maybe five percent of my time, ninety-five percent was me interacting with them: working, talking. So the taking photographs might have seemed strange and they might ask me once or twice ‘What are you doing? Why are you taking photographs of the site?’ And they would presume it was a hobby or something like that. But I’d always try to get photographs when they weren’t engaged with me. A lot of the time they wouldn’t even notice I’m was taking a photograph because I wouldn’t use a flash or because they would be engaged in what they were doing. I’ve only come across one person who didn’t want to be photographed. Generally, after explaining what I was doing they just ignored it and carried on. Or they’d joke about it. I had to take the photograph before they saw me and could stick their fingers up at me, that was always part of it.
Darren Thiel: Have some of them seen the photos? What do they think about them?
David O'Mara: They like the black and white because it looks antique, that was one comment. But I suppose it’s not really how they engage with photography either. There would be complaints: ‘We look really dirty’. I think some found it interesting. It’s hard for me because I’ve been involved with photography for so long that the visual language might not translate very well. They would talk to me about lovely photographs they have taken on holidays, so that could often be a mismatch of how we engage with the medium.
Darren Thiel: So, your photography is not really meant for the consumption of your co-workers? As you have said, it is at least partly, for you and your sense of self and temporality. But is it also for the consumption of voyeurs – similar to Victorian images of the dirty working classes?
David O'Mara: I don’t know if it’s the same with sociology but I think that for a lot of photography the default audience is middle-class. It’s for their benefit to document this so they can look at these images. In the past someone parachuted into an area, took photographs and left, then it became a glossy coffee table book or ended up in the Guardian Weekend. At least I can hope that I have shown an honest depiction of what it’s like. It’s my subjective experience of being in a building site and taking photographs. But if you take them and no one sees them it is an empty project. You want people to see that they’re living in a house and it didn’t just appear there, a lot of work goes into it; there’s a lot of dirt, a lot of dust and a lot of sweat.