'Southgate Faces' Tells Stories Of Bath's Shipyard Workers

Sep 15, 2017

At 11:30 a.m. every workday the lunch whistle blows at Bath Iron Works, and shipfitters, welders, pipefitters, electricians and painters gather in at the yard’s south gate for a strict 30-minute lunch break. But many Bath residents know very little about these people or about the dangerous work they do.

Two Bath locals, Hopper McDonough and Heather Perry, decided to ask them, record their answers and take their portraits. The result is an exhibition called Southgate Faces.

Keith Shortall spoke to the creators recently about what the project revealed.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

McDonough: I think the very first time I drove by that gate and saw the workers out there I knew there was something that should be captured. And after driving by for years and years and after meeting Heather, we said, “Let’s do this, let’s just take these portraits.” And she said, “Yeah, I thought the same thing.”

Perry: But then it’s how to do it and I knew right away that I wanted to do studio portraits. And that was going to involve a studio.

McDonough: The studio is only two or three blocks from the yard. We thought, "Well, we’ll do it here."

Perry: Except that we also knew there was no way we would get them to come up here.

McDonough: They have basically, from the time they hit the gate to the time they get back in, they have 30 minutes for lunch.

Perry: We knew we had to bring the studio to them. So we did. We built a studio out of PVC and shade fabric and we made it something that could break down and collapse onto the top and inside of Hopper’s minivan. And we drove it down there and we basically set up an alien spaceship in the middle of their living room.

Shortall: This is not a place to work if you’re at all claustrophobic.

McDonough: Not at all. That was one of the themes that came out as well is that they work in tight spaces.

Perry: Welders will say "I’m hanging upside down. You know, I’m like in the trunk of my car, it’s that size."

McDonough: One thing that really got us was how much they liked the job. That’s one thing that really surprised us. These jobs that they describe as dusty and dirty and gritty and loud and dangerous — almost to a builder. They loved it.

Perry: What this really was is as an exercise in listening to one another. I have lived here two blocks up from the yard for 18 years and I hear the horn, you know, five times a day or whatever it is. I know that I can’t leave my house at 3:30 p.m. because I can’t get anywhere when the yard lets out. I know that when I run on Washington Street, you know, I feel a little uncomfortable if I go by at 11:30 a.m. when they’re all out for lunch. But there’s this huge workforce and we’re not mixing, the community of Bath is not mixing with this community that comes in to work. And who are they? And what are their hopes and dreams and what do they want from a day of work? And all of a sudden now I feel like we’ve opened a window between these two communities. And it’s nothing more than that. We’ve listened to 65 people that do something different than what we do. But I feel like it feels a little different.

To see and hear more of "Southgate Faces," visit southgatefaces.com.

This story was originally published Sept. 14, 2017 at 5:26 p.m. ET.