Several years ago, I spent an afternoon with Charlie Fawell on a construction site in Manchester. We had been charged with recording the transformation of the city’s Corn Exchange into a shopping precinct; a delicate process that involved scooping out the guts of the building while leaving its exterior intact.

On the day of our visit, liquid concrete was being poured into holes in the ground to form the piles that would support the internal structure, and the building’s austere Victorian façade belied a mood of agitation. Where liquid concrete is concerned, timing is crucial and it must have been with some trepidation that the site manager granted us access to the unfolding drama.

For four hours, Charlie criss-crossed the site, pausing to evaluate the changing light, chatting to the workers to establish where the action was and how best to observe without getting in the way. Unobtrusive, diplomatic, yet unswervingly focused on the job in hand, he occupied the eye of the storm; identifying the best vistas, capturing spontaneous moments and orchestrating set-pieces without drawing attention to himself or disrupting the rugged choreography of the building site.

I have since seen him perform a similar feat in a boardroom full of people who believed themselves too preoccupied to be photographed. Measured, self-assured and able to switch seamlessly between decisiveness and diffidence to achieve his goals, Charlie manages to be both incisive and discreet – a disarming combination.

Like all skilled improvisers, Charlie draws on a reservoir of experience and expertise that has given him the confidence – and the safety certificates – to operate in testing environments, from offshore oil and gas platforms to vertiginous wind turbines. Usually, obtaining the paperwork needed to gain access to such risky locations involves training exercises that are more nerve-wracking than the subsequent assignments. Donning breathing apparatus to escape from an upside-down ‘helicopter cockpit’ submerged in a swimming pool suggests a certain dedication to one’s craft. It’s reassuring to know that Charlie’s unflappable demeanour is underpinned by an enviably comprehensive portfolio of regularly updated health and safety documentation.

Tellingly, such attention to detail manifests itself as a sureness of step that enables Charlie to respond imaginatively to unexpected challenges. Sent to a beverage can factory near Moscow to capture reportage images of the workers, he was also asked to produce a still-life picture of a bale of crushed aluminium prior to its reuse in the manufacturing process. Travelling on a budget and lacking the battery of portable studio lighting needed to enliven an ill-lit industrial interior, his solution was to take the cube of compressed metal outside, place it on a chair and use the snow lying on the ground as a source of reflected light.

Such measured resourcefulness finds expression in photography that is memorable for its honesty and lucidity; rendering the most prosaic subjects engaging without resorting to discernible artifice, and bypassing corporate façades without disturbing the delicate human connections that lie within.

Charlie graduated from Salisbury College of Art in 1985 with a Higher Diploma in Photography and a Professional Qualifying Exam, majoring in documentary photography.

Jonathan Cottam

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