Thursday, 13 September 2012

Assignment Five - Your own brief.

I decided to approach The Broadway Tower in order to do a photo essay on the nuclear bunker in their grounds. I wanted to depict the overall functionality of the bunker, illustrating the working conditions, the tools and instruments these volunteers had to work with. I had in mind my previous visit to the site and some of the political issues that had emerged after talking with one of the volunteers. As part of the agreement to enable me to take these photographs I would be required to take some photographs of the bunker for their own use, as part of the publicity and marketing material – so I had to be aware of both requirements as I went about my work.
Spotter hut
The first photograph is of a "spotter's hut", actually to the side of the bunker entrance, but it provides a situating shot. Most people view the work of the Royal Observer Corps as largely to do with WWII, their role in the Cold War is to a great extent unheard and certainly unromanticised. The ROC played a vital role in the second war. The actual entrance to the bunker is unremarkable at ground level and I have it in later shots. The next image is of descending into the bunker. I had to lay on the ground - in front of the Elsan toilet - to capture this shot - I managed three and this one was the best compromise of movement and position. There are difficulties with exposure in this shot and I exposed for the darker areas. I have another image that is without a person descending the ladder and whilst it is more evenly exposed it doesn't provide the critical, and I think essential ingredient of a person, albeit anonymous.
The next few images are of life underground - I had choices to make here, mainly to do with exposure. The light to the left of the photograph of the man descending the ladder is typical of how the lights "feels" upon enterring the bunker, after a few moments the eyes start to become acclimatised to the low intensity of light and after thirty minutes or so it seems quite normal. I had exposed the images at ISO 1600 which gave me some flexibility although I used a tripod most of the time, this meant that the camera's natural desire to produce "bright" shots would need to be subverted in order to present the viewer with a more accurate perspective of "life in the bunker". However the shots for the Tower have all been much brighter, I will include those shots later in the piece as a matter of interest.
The dial left is the "Bomb Power Indicator" or "BPI" where peak air pressure over normal is measured - here in Kilopascals. One of the vital statistics that would be required to be logged by the volunteers. Two other instruments are used; a pin-hole camera (sitting above ground) should capture the detonation and provide grid references and altitude via triangulation charts. The other instrument is the radiation sensor, which can be operated from below ground. The shot opposite is the chemical toilet, to be used by up to four volunteers for two weeks.
The hand pump left is used, if required, to pump out water from a sump directly below the entrance ladder - the Broadway nuclear bunker didn't suffer the interminable damp that other bunkers were liable to be afflicted by. I thought of one shot to indicate the banality of life underground; a radio, a candle holder, a pack of cards and a coffee mug. This particular bunker is now part museum and has items that are related only by seemingly being typical of the time. In fact games of any sort were frowned upon as they might lead to friction if they became too competitive - an odd concept when their lives were being gambled with by their Government.

This grid image depicts the various clusters and reporting chains that were set up to facilitate an efficient communication mechanism for reporting the "event" should the need arise. The Broadway bunker was a "master" station and was therefore a "four man" station (though women were as much part of the volunteer group as the men). The image on the right depicts the ceiling mounting of the radiation detector. The piston like probe mounted on the bracket was inserted into the cylindrical hole using a pole. It was then pushed into an outside receptacle where it could feed information about radiation levels to an instrument inside the bunker. They would therefore be aware of the levels of radiation in the environment when their two weeks rations/water/duty ended on the occasion of an "event". Their duty was only to record and transmit this data through the time they were in station, their requirement fulfilled, their role now redundant. They would be free to enter the world again, in whatever state they might find it.

The rest are outside shots to depict some of the more human aspects of these bunkers and their human inhabitants. The first shot is of a woman's uniform, her name - Sandra Jackson, whether she had anything to do with this bunker or the ROC in this area I don't know - the Manager of the Tower seeks relevant memorabilia from anywhere. I thought that the inclusion of Sandra's name helps to bring the person to the place, not anonymous but unseen. Another "unseen" is the image on the right - a page from the "R.O.C. Broadway Occurance Report" opened at random it depicts the ordinariness of the daily ritual these volunteers undertook. This entry from 1970 tells of decorating and other maintenance needs - all undertaken by the volunteers; about manning levels and rostas at regular, and most-times, daily meetings. 

The sign, made recently by the owner of the Tower (or by someone for him for purposes of display) indicates the levels of radiation and their concomitant effects. There is some debate about how much the volunteers knew about their probable fate; some were quite clearly aware that if the "balloon" went up then their lot would have been very unpleasant indeed; and they therefore wouldn't need to be reminded of the dosage levels and their effects. There were though, it is also assumed, some that preferred not to know. I found it oddly curious that the levels increased from top to bottom and at the lowest level on the sheet is the "WARTIME EMERGENCY DOSE". Did that mean that all those levels could be surpassed in the event of an attack, and the duty of the volunteer was to provide the data come what may? Maybe, maybe not. The old police helmet, whilst not directly related to monitoring nuclear events, speaks to the role that the Corps provided and the role that the UK Government felt, and to some extent still feels, about it's role in the world.

This next shot is more of an allegorical image. It is meant to depict the volunteers, absent from their uniforms, maybe hung out to dry, men and women who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for their country in a way that I find difficult to comprehend today. The ROC was a branch of the Civil Defence, albeit under the command of the RAF; my father was in the Civil Defence and I can't remember him providing the same level of commitment - maybe it wasn't required of him. The last shot is looking up and I find it quite a disturbing image in this context. Coming out after two weeks of isolation from a nuclear attack - the bomb(s) has gone off, there is the real possibility of being welcomed by a nuclear wasteland and in view from the exit porthole, staying isn't an option. However though, from this perspective, it appears to be a bright sunny day, blue skies over (the white cliffs...), radiation is invisible, the level of devastation might be visible at the top of the ladder, the view from Broadway Tower is excellent, the highest point on the Cotswolds, but what would be seen?

Overall I am satisfied with this assignment, it could have been a lot different as the last visit I made had turned out to be "Open-Day", but this gave me additional options in which to tailor my photo essay. The subdued lighting inside the bunker was the most difficult decision to make, as can be seen I could have edited the bunker shots to be much brighter; but I felt that possibly subverted the images somewhat and so I have worked them to be consistently "duller"! I had decided previously not to take any artificial light to the scene; I still think that was right decision. I purposely left the ROC volunteers out of the final edit - I wanted this to be about what they faced, not about them as individuals, they weren't in this role as individuals, they were a Corps. There are some shots below that include their faces, but their presence was all over the images that I have included in the assignment I think.
Their story is quite important from a human perspective, both from how the Corps responded, but also how they were treated during and post service. A lot to think about and I hope this essay provides some food for thought.

I have written about this project here and here and here

The Tower people have expressed their satisfaction at what I have provided for them, so I am happy about that: -

Dear John,

many thanks for the link to your pictures. They are excellent. I hope you enjoyed the day too.

Would you be able to let me have the pictures on high resolution files so we can use them please. They should be shown on our website etc.

Many thanks for your help.

Best wishes,

Annette Gorton

Managing Director


Here is a link or here: to a photo video of the bunker, something that I had in mind on my last visit to the bunker. It is nearly 10 minutes long and has some image compression issues due to Vimeo upload I think. A high res' version is available.

Here is a selection of the images I will provide to the Broadway Tower for the purposes of enticing people to pay for the pleasure of visiting the bunker.


  1. It's good to read it as a whole after seeing you build up the story. I think the Broadway Tower is getting a very good deal from you.

    The link to the video isn't working though John.

    Well - that's it then, People & Place completed. I remember when you were agonising a little after Assignment 2 and now, here you are completed. Excellent.


    1. Thanks again Catherine. I tried the video link and it seemed to work for me - I'll try it on another platform to check it out, thanks for the tip. Still not happy about assignment two, so what I'll put up for assessment isn't decided by a long way, and anyway I have to get through this hurdle first! But I've really enjoyed it and am looking forward to continuing to explore.