Exhibition review: Ben Roberts – Manchester Art Gallery

Jeremy Deller’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is an art show that is currently being exhibited at Manchester Art Gallery. It looks at the roots that link pop music and contemporary culture with Britain’s industrial past. Ben Robert’s ‘Amazon Unpacked’ illustrated the parallels between past working arrangements and what seems to be happening in certain sectors now, and rather chillingly what may happen in the future.

The three pieces by Roberts’ included in the exhibition are large format documentary photographs of workers insider one of Amazon’s nine UK fulfilment centres. The curation gave the images, which were initially published in the Financial Times, a new energy, linking the subtle, abstract negatives of contemporary working conditions to the more immediate hardships that characterised the workhouses of the industrial revolution.

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This first large format shot successfully conveys the scale of the warehouse and the operations inside, it exposes the unstimulating, bland working environment in all its glory. The endless ordered shelves blur into a hypnotic pattern drawing the viewer’s eye to the left side of the frame. The patterns formed in this image are similar to those found in Andreas Gursky’s large format architecture and landscape photographs, although ironically, Gursky uses photo manipulation to create such large scale, repeated patterns.

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The Financial Times’ article opens with “the online giant is creating thousands of UK jobs, so why are some employees less than happy?” As Roberts’ was not allowed to photograph any real life employees, he compromised by capturing the surreal life-size portraits of Adam Hoccon and Bev Horton extolling the virtues of working for Amazon. One of the speech bubbles reads; “this is the best job I have ever had!” Are these quotes real? Is the best job really pushing a trolley around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screen of a handheld satnav computer for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up on arrival? Before any employee is allowed to go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything. These photographs show how robotic and mundane some modern day jobs have become.

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“Earlier in my career as a photographer (before I had even started studying) I had lofty dreams and ambitions that my work could ‘make a difference’. Over time I came to look back on these goals as naive. I’m not so vain as to believe that my photographs are so brilliant that they can instantly move people, but the way in which my Amazon photographs have been re-appropiated since their initial publication in the FT Magazine has helped me to understand that in the right hands, photographs have the power to at the very least open a dialogue and engage an audience in new ways.”

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