On Assignment: The face of construction

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Presenting something a little different from a recent assignment. Firstly, I know I’m not really known for portraiture, though I do quite a bit of it; I suppose it’s simply not something I’ve really publicised much. On this assignment, I had a few things to keep in play: firstly, finding the right faces amongst the workers; secondly, some of them being unwilling or uncomfortable to be photographed*. and thirdly, striking a good balance between a documentary in situ and something posed. Overriding all of this was the need for authenticity: no point in having a great looking portrait but one that doesn’t make sense either from the client’s standpoint (i.e. not representative of actual construction work) and vice-versa. I wanted to mostly avoid the kind of thing where you just have somebody posing and looking into the camera; that negates the documentary aspect to a large degree – and in my own mind always felt as though either the workers weren’t really working that much, or the whole exercise was forced. In the end, I think I managed a good mix everywhere along the continuum from a fleeting smile to posed to something more natural and mid-work.

*Far more often than you might think; either out of fear that they might be caught doing something wrong and censured later, or for Asian reasons of ‘giving face’ and not wanting the exact nature of their work to be known. There is an inexplicably strong desire to work in a corner office shuffling paper, it seems…

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In practice, let’s say that for those accustomed to working in a studio or controlled environment – location docu-portraiture of this nature will be challenging. Firstly, you can’t set up lights because of the lack of space and risk of getting in the way of something; secondly, the subjects don’t have time to spare, and thirdly, you’re very much aware that this is a real working environment with real safety hazards, and that comes first. On top of that, there are environmental conditions – lots of dust and mud splashing around; several of these were made in the rain, and even more were underground in high humidity and very low light. Since there was no specific brief as to activities or individuals that must be captured, I just worked as best I could and curated afterwards; this proved to be a good working method as I could get in out quickly without interfering with working operations. In order of priority, light and activity tied, with individual and gesture third – these may be reshuffled to light-individual-activity if I was doing it for my own reasons.

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From a creative standpoint, monochrome made sense because building is both a timeless and noble profession; in some ways, the foundation and enabler of modern society. We also have to consider the humanistic and human scale aspect; workers have hopes, fears and dreams, and at the same time, they work on a much smaller, more intimate scale even on the largest projects. There is a degree of precision, artistry and care which I’ve always found fascinating – the end result might be massive, but it won’t come together without attention to detail. How often do we take our structures for granted? How often do we spare a thought for how they were built, and who built them? Not often enough, I say. A structure is more than just steel, concrete and glass: it’s a little bit of the life of those who built it and those who inhabit it.

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Hardware-wise, I went medium format as usual. Even though lenses are slower and minimum shutter speeds required for critical sharpness higher, the significantly better color and dynamic range in low light makes this choice a no-brainer. I had the H5D-50c and 35-90mm zoom for versatility and environmental portraits; most of the time, the lens was a 35mm (28-e) with emergency reach. The X1D was paired with the 90mm (70-e), and proved to be perfectly suited for the task. It probably didn’t do any harm that the perception of the ‘serious camera’ with attendant subject expectations and psychology was over my shoulder and I just used the ‘little camera’ when photographing them most of the time. In any case – I’ll let the results do the talking. MT

Shot on location almost entirely candidly at nine project sites. Images used with kind permission of Chun Wo Construction Holdings Limited, Hong Kong. I used a preproduction Hasselblad X1D, along with a Hasselblad H5D-50C and various lenses. Postprocessing was done with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow.

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More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.


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  1. I throughly enjoyed these pictures. It is a refreshing change from the usual street documentary work that you see.

  2. Pixelgreat says:

    Interesting images, thanks!

  3. Nice work and timeless tones indeed!

    There’s a small glitch in the 2nd image: the flame is grayish and lower brightness than reflected light on the sleeve. Watching your workflow videos makes me notice such things 🙂

    • Good spot. It’s perceptually odd, but should be the same luminance – both clip, but the curve was pulled down at the very top of the histogram. Could be the color information affecting the B&W conversion though.

  4. You are right about some asian being uncomfortable to be photograph during work. But they probably just thought that you are one of the many supervisor in charge doing progress report. But anyway, those are really a nice series celebrating the unsung heroes of modern world.

  5. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    This seems to be something like a specialised branch of street photography – in the sense that when preparing to take a shot, you no doubt need to make sure it’s OK with the people in the frame. They are often engaged in a task that carries a high risk level, and the last thing they need is to be distracted while doing it. Yet another field where the photographer and the people in the picture need to work together.

    And as the other comments say, a brilliant addition to your other construction shots, Ming.

  6. Ming
    Your construction photography is probably my favorite of your professional work, thanks for sharing yet another unique set.
    Re monochrome,- I have not yet seen a photograpic example of hi-vis work wear in a color that works as anything other than simple documentation. Wear a brown shirt on a construction site if you want to stand out and draw attention to yourself these days, and not just construction sites.

  7. richard majchrzak says:

    Mr Ming , as always and this time especially since you bring two topical demands together , portraiture in the work environment , again your shots….just blow me away….new interpretations of old are still possible (Sanders comes to mind), new classics…?!!cheers…Cristal clear thoughts and pics

  8. Wonderful. I have always liked your photos of construction projects, but this set shows the detailed work of the many individuals whose contributions make the whole.

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