Heather Perry Gets to Know Her Shipbuilding Neighbors at Bath Iron Works
Heather Perry specializes in underwater photography. "There is nowhere I feel more comfortable, or more myself," she admits, which makes her latest endeavor all the more impressive.
The Bath, Maine resident recently left her comfort zone to venture into nearby uncharted waters: The Bath Iron Works shipyard, which produces military vessels for the United States Navy. Since it manufactures government equipment, BIW is a highly secure facility. This creates a deeply ironic dynamic within the community — a dynamic which Heather and audiographer Hopper McDonough were determined to dissolve through a simple, agenda-free idea.
We were there to meet and listen to some of BIW’s shipbuilders. That’s it. The average Bath resident doesn’t know much about what is actually going on within the gates of Bath Iron Works, so [Hopper] and I decided to try to open a window between these two populations and concocted this crazy plan to do a sound portrait project.
It’s amazing what people will tell you if they know you are actually listening.
Many of BIW’s employees do not live in Bath, but their work gives the “City of Ships” an identity its had for generations.
Maine’s economy is more dependent on boat and shipbuilding than any other state. The population of Bath is just over 8,000, and the Shipyard employs about 6,000 people.
In order to properly profile the people of Bath Iron Works, Heather had to overcome her own initial perception of them.
In the past, I’d never felt super comfortable passing the gates on a run when I knew the workers would be out. That fear was largely born of not knowing who these people were and what they do in there. Looking at bumper stickers on their parked cars and forming opinions about who they were. Feeling different.
Heather and Hopper began their work in earnest in 2016. Due to scheduling conflicts, logistical snags, and unpredictable weather, it took the pair more than a year to complete the project. The team was not allowed to shoot on BIW property, so Heather and Hopper set up shop across the street.
We had to create a portable studio we could bring to the site, set up quickly, use for 30 minutes, then break down and drive away. We built a framework out of PVC and custom wrapped it in shade fabric to block daylight and mild rain. We had a cross bar to hold a strobe in a softbox overhead.
The whole thing had to fit in and on [Hopper]'s minivan when collapsed, and then in a parking space when set up, so it was four feet wide by eight feet long. It was pretty homegrown, but I think that may have helped us in the long run [because] we didn’t look like some slick, elite outfit coming in to exploit blue collar workers.
From there, Heather set about coaxing the shipbuilders into sitting for pictures and giving interviews. This proved challenging, as BIW employees only get a 30-minute break in the middle of each eight-hour shift and many were loath to surrender that precious downtime. Still, it gave Heather the chance to finally meet some of her neighbors.
It felt completely audacious to go set up a photo booth on their turf and ask them for anything. I likened it to ‘setting up a space ship in their living room.’ In the end, I did have to do a fair amount of convincing and cajoling, mingling with small groups of workers smoking or chatting while [they were] on break. This felt very intimidating to me, but I just … did it.
Heather also morphed into an amateur anthropologist and identified “influencer types in the small groups [she] saw forming.” She struck up a friendship with those individuals, who in turn brought their colleagues to the booth.
Before long, Heather was interviewing the men and women of Bath Iron Works and hearing their stories. These interactions quickly became intimate, eye-opening conversations centered around naked, revealing sentiments.
There’s usually some moment in a portrait session when we get to talking about something personal and meaningful, and, from that moment on, the photographs become more authentic.
[For example,] I was so surprised to hear young people in their 20s talking about their relief at landing this job, and their hope and intention to stick with it until retirement. Once they get these jobs, they hang on to them for life, something that’s pretty rare of young people in today’s gig economy.
In learning about these people, Heather and Hopper pinpointed their assumptions and realized why they were so off base.
I think one of the most impactful things for my partner and I was that we were able to identify our own, subconscious biases in the process of meeting and listening to the shipbuilders.
I completely admit to [having] the misconception that working at the Yard — welding, grinding rust, working in loud, noisy, dirty, confined spaces — would be a job you’d take because you didn’t have another option.
What a narrow-minded notion! It became clear to us on day one that, by and large, the shipbuilders love what they do. They love the pride they feel about contributing to a whole. Many of them also feel great pride in producing something important to the perceived power of our country, and that only adds to their love of the work.
Some of them also really made us realize how significantly we as an American culture have stigmatized the trades. There is plenty of work for people who want to work with their hands. These jobs are important and require skills and abilities that many people with very expensive educations do not have.
One of the most significant aspects of this project for Heather was the friendship she struck up with Roger, a veteran rigger who garnered deep respect from his co-workers. Though it took a few weeks for Heather to convince Roger to sit for a portrait, he eventually caved and also helped persuade his fellow employees to speak with Heather. The two stayed in close touch after the project was finished.
Every single Friday he’d text me ‘Happy Friday to my favorite photog.’ One day, he stopped answering texts. After a week, I knew something wasn’t right.
His sister texted me back on his phone to let me know he’d passed away in his sleep. He was 47, three months younger than me. These shipbuilders work hard, and it takes a toll on them.
This unlikely bond served as a microcosm of Heather’s experience as well as proof positive of how people can cultivate meaningful relationships in spite of their differences of opinion.
We set out to get to know our neighbors with this work — neighbors we were pretty sure held different world views than we do, in general. I think this project made a small bridge across a large gap between people in the little city of Bath and the shipbuilders who come from all over the state to do what they do.
Without this project, I’m not sure someone like him and someone like me would have ever even interacted, never mind become friends. I maintain that being brave, meeting people with good intentions, and listening is a very small, but very important step in talking through the many differing opinions we find within our communities.
Audiographer: Hopper McDonough
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