Exhibition marks 30 years of Nissan's Sunderland plant

image copyrightJames Sebright
image captionThe photographs' titles are a play on words with many linking to the region's mining heritage

Against the backdrop of the 1984 Miners' Strike, Japanese car firm Nissan struck a deal with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for a car plant on the outskirts of Sunderland in north-east England. Three decades on, a new exhibition explores its impact.

"The factory is like an enormous machine that has to be fed," says photographer James Sebright, recalling his visits to the cavernous plant that employs almost 7,000 people.

"You've got the lines running through the factory and everything is geared towards keeping it running.

"It's colourful, it's noisy and it's overwhelming. It's so alien to the average person who doesn't work there."

Once a proud home to shipbuilding and coalmining, the 1980s saw hard times befall much of the North East.

Decades of tradition drew to a close as the Conservative government oversaw a move away from heavy industries.

image copyrightJames Sebright
image caption"The spot welding of body parts produces a thick, black dust," says Sebright
image copyrightJames Sebright
image captionTime Share refers to the tight production schedules and the holiday breaks employees enjoy
image copyrightJames Sebright
image captionThe car on a raised platform reminded the pair of a child's toy horse

In its place came the plant run by the Japanese motoring giant - to an initially mixed reaction as British car firms feared greater competition and unions voiced concerns over Nissan's "no strike" stance.

With a deal agreed in 1984, the first car rolled off the production line in 1986.

Today, it is the region's biggest employer and a new exhibition at Durham University's Oriental Museum, called Nissan: 30 Years On, is exploring the effect it has had on the region and its people.

Newcastle-based Sebright and Northumberland writer and audio artist Rachel Cochrane have combined photography, the written word, audio and film.

The pair interviewed current and former employees as well as key figures who helped bring the company to the region.

The resulting work paints a picture of a firm that now plays a key part in local life.

Sebright believes it is important to document "what's around us" and points to the American city of Detroit, which has seen large areas become ghost towns following the collapse of its once-mighty car-making industry.

"There's a lot about the region's mining heritage but not a lot recorded on the here and now," he says.

image copyrightJames Sebright
image captionThe rolls of metal later pressed into body parts are concealed by plastic covers
image copyrightJames Sebright
image caption"Many of the workers enjoy playing golf in their leisure time and the metal fittings almost look like a crazy golf course," says Cochrane

"You take for granted what's around, but it won't always be like that.

"A great example is Detroit. If you'd told someone in the 1970s, 'We have to document this because it won't always be here,' they would have laughed, but we all know what has happened there."

For Cochrane, who has written a number of haikus - short Japanese poems - their interviews saw a number of shared themes emerge.

"We asked people what Nissan meant to them. A number of them said security for family, money for a house, a car and holidays," she says.

"They also spoke about the friendships they had developed, which was reminiscent of the strong bonds between the miners.

"Another parallel to that heritage was the way generations of the same families have gone on to work at the factory, in the same way new generations followed the older ones into the pits.

"It's easy to think of it as a huge, automated process, but it's also got lots of real people and we wanted to look at the stories of the people behind the machines."

Nissan: 30 Years On runs until 18 October.

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