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From Photographer to Amazon Worker: Documenting Life in the Warehouse

From Photographer to Amazon Worker: Documenting Life in the Warehouse

When your income disappears overnight, what do you do? Like many professional photographers during the lockdown, Tristan Poyser found himself suddenly out of work. He took a job at the Amazon warehouse, which led to a fascinating documentary project with unprecedented access to this notoriously secretive company. 

Tristan's Background

Tristan has been a photographer for 17 years since he completed an MSc in Biological Photography. He started a photography and web business with a friend and course mate; then, after three years, he went solo and became self-employed. Tristan specializes in architectural and advertising photography — both industries that took quite a hit during the lockdown. 

Change of Employment During the Lockdown

Even before lockdown, big event jobs in London for the summer started to get canceled. The impact on Tristan's commissions was huge; since March 10, he's had only one day booked for architectural photography. Tristan saw trouble on the horizon and acted fast: "Marketing budgets are always the first to go, so as soon as my work was canceled, I applied."

Tristan told me that, like many of us, he enjoyed the first month or so of lockdown, but then reality really hit. He told me: "I enjoyed family time and taking my five-year-old out to explore the woods for exercise, but my wife is on maternity leave, so it was a case of struggle or find a new income source." Finding a new job in a financial crisis is no mean feat, but Tristan found a role at Amazon. "It was working nights, so I could still help with childcare or fit any photography work that came in, and it paid the equivalent of a £27,000 salary, with no commitment. There was no reason not to give it a try." Such a humble and refreshing attitude! 

Working at Amazon

Despite the financial stress, the change in employment came as something of a liberation. Tristan explains: "When I got the job at Amazon, it was quite refreshing to go to work with no responsibility and no nervous anxiety about things I couldn’t control — something I always get when doing photography. It was a novelty to earn money without thinking."

Of course, Tristan wasn't the only one to look for alternative employment during the lockdown. He tells me that his colleagues are comprised of a wide range of professions: surveyors, financial advisors, a music producer, IT, and students.

I couldn't help wondering what the work was like compared to life as a photographer. Tristan told me that he does find it hard not to be in control and not being given information about the bigger picture. Rather than running the show, he feels he's now "one of the hundreds of small cogs making the vast machine work." This must be such a different experience from being a photographer, where we're used to having creative control and input. 

The day-to-day is very different from a photographer's life too. The work is much more physical, of course. Interestingly, Tristan says the amount of effort is up to the worker. I'd imagined the targets would make the shift work relentless, but he explains: "The actual work is as hard as you want it to be. I bought a Fit Bit and pushed myself. So far, I’ve lost 6 kg from walking 20-40 km most shifts. If I wanted to go slower, I could, but then the shift would drag, and I'm too impatient."

Getting Permission to Photograph Inside Amazon

Getting permission from such a monolithic company seems a daunting prospect and not one I'm sure I'd have the courage to engage with. Tristan grabbed the bull by the horns, though, and contacted everyone on LinkedIn who worked at Amazon and had comms or PR in their job title. The man has some serious tenacity! He told me: "Eventually, someone got back to me and put me in touch with the right person. It helped that I’d been commissioned by Historic England, as it gave me accreditation. Once I’d started making portraits, my Amazon contact asked if I’d like to document the FC (Fulfillment Center) and show the safety measures put in place for COVID, but do it in a creative style. I jumped at the chance, as I’d spent the last month thinking about how I’d shoot it." So much for working without thinking — you can take yourself out of the photography industry, but you can't take the photographer out of your brain! 

Tristan used a Sony a7  II body, with a Metabones adapter and Canon 17mm tilt-shift, and a Mirex tilt-shift adapter with Mamiya medium format 55mm and 80mm lenses. Tristan says: "These are all manual focus, so it makes it a bit more interesting and slows the process down."

"This shows the management and team leaders packing during the normal associates' break. I was surprised when I first saw the management pitching in to help ensure shipping deadlines were met. It was a real leveler, demonstrating that nobody is too elevated to do the basic jobs."

I wondered how the Amazon workers felt about being photographed. Tristan says: "For the environmental shots, colleagues wondered why I wasn’t working as normal. I explained to anyone in a shot what I was up to, and everyone was more than happy to take part." As with so many situations, treating people as individuals can make a project possible. 

"This is Mitchell Woodhouse, a New Zealander stood at his packing station behind Perspex erected for COVID safety measures. For me, this captures the sense of isolation we can feel during lockdown, amplified by social distancing and having to wear masks that prevents reading facial expressions."

A lot of the people are blurred, which Tristan tells me this was both for anonymity and also to give a sense of the fast-paced environment within the Fulfillment Center. Tristan describes the sense of urgency in the FC, "especially when there are shipping deadlines. Everyone is focused on ensuring customers get their packages at the time promised."

Taken using Canon 17mm at f/5, 1/10, ISO 320.

This shot shows the vast scale of the FC, with the leading lines of the conveyors to draw the viewer in. Tristan waited for the moment when people would be going on their break. He told me: "I always use a tripod and try to keep my ISO as low as possible. Even though I know my camera can perform at higher ISO, it’s a force of habit drilled into me from the university."

Portraits of Associates

For the portraits, Tristan photographed people close to where they are working. He also tries to give a sense of the FC in the background too. He's been given free rein of the FC and has the last hour of my shift to make the portraits.  

"It’s interesting and surprising to see others' thoughts and opinions. We all live in our own social bubbles. The part of social documentary projects I love is getting normal people's opinions, which are often very different to my own and the media's."

Initially, Tristan asked people who had helped him settle in. Now that he's photographed around 70 people, he simply asks anyone he hasn't yet photographed. He tells me that "some are really eager and get the project, whereas others are dubious. I explain what the project is about, and then, 90% are happy to take part. I think having to wear masks makes it easier, so people can hide behind them. It definitely makes it easier as a photographer." It's an interesting point. I have to say that as a portrait photographer myself, I can't begin to imagine photographing faces in masks. 

The portraits are made with an 80mm Mamyia and Mirex tilt-shift adapter. They're shot at f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/100 s or 1/125 s and ISO 1,000, lit with a single LED panel. 

Camera Equipment

Tristan just takes in the minimal kit, which he leaves with the team leader at the start of his shift and gets it for the last hour of his shift to start shooting. I'd imagined that working in a busy warehouse would limit the choice of kit, but Tristan tells me that hasn't been the case: "I had a strong sense of what I wanted to achieve, so it made a choice easier."

What Next?

Tristan's aim is to make a portrait to represent every day of lockdown. His goal is to persuade Amazon to give him a yearlong artist residency, similar to the one hosted by BMW, as well as get some commissions as a result of this work. 

Images used with the permission of Tristan Poyser.

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22.5 years working in a busy warehouse, 15 on the floor and 7.5 as system support. It always made me laugh at the bad press Amazon have been given for their Warehouses, calling it slave labour etc. The reality is that’s the nature of a fulfilment centre and it’s actually a buzz when you get your head down and get stuck in, my advice for anyone complaining about it is work harder at school so you can do a job that doesn’t involve graft if you have a problem with it.

Having worked in an Amazon photo studio and knowing just how they are (we had to store our phones in lockers) this is pretty unbelievable to me that they relented and allowed photography, especially someone hired to just be a picker.

There is a reason certain activities are called "work" and others are called "play". And remember that just because you brought your lunch doesn't mean that it is a picnic.

Read somewhere that even among medical doctors, people say that about 95% of their work is uninteresting at best and drudgery at worst.

Probably different in the arts, and that's why people like you and I are here.

I've found myself in a similar position due to the lockdown, but instead working for a Target fulfillment center. Good read; glad to hear I'm not the only one.