Esholt Sewage Works is the last place you’d expect to find inspiration for an exciting career.

But for Ian Beesley, the unlikely setting put him on the road to becoming one of the world’s leading social and industrial documentary photographers.

Born in Bradford, he left Hanson School with few qualifications and went on the work as a labourer in a textile mill, then at a local foundry.

But it was when he joined the workforce at Esholt as the road runner in the railway gang – working alongside ‘Elizabeth’, the last working steam engine in the area – that he saw his future.

“While I was working there, I bought my first camera and took some photographs of the men I worked with,” he says. “The results were quite good. Then, one day, the men I was working with said to me: ‘You can’t stay here for the rest of your life’, and encouraged me to go elsewhere.”

That advice led to him pursuing a career behind the lens, which this year resulted in him being awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society – one of the most prestigious honours a photographer can receive – for his dedication to documenting social and industrial history, particularly in the north of England.

Taking heed of the advice from his Esholt workmates, Ian applied to Bradford Art College, continuing his studies in photography at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art. In his final year, he was awarded a Kodak Scholarship for Social Documentation enabling him to document the industry and customs of the north of England. “This was a massive career jump – I began to photograph the mills and industry, and am still doing it now,” he says.

His stark, black and white images of Bradford’s long-gone landmarks, it’s dying textile mills and its people capture a time and place that would otherwise have been lost forever: Dixon’s bobbin mills in Steeton, wool sorters in Dawson’s Mill, Bradford, and the cavernous, deserted interior of Lister’s Mill.

Then there’s the unforgettable image of Gray’s fisheries that stood alone on a long-gone street near Stott Hill – one of Ian’s favourite images from the many thousands he has shot over the years.

“My grandma lived near that shop and we got fish and chips from it. I went there about a fortnight before the couple who ran it retired. The name ‘A Gray’ was above the door made out of cats’ eyes.

“The man who owned the shop was friends with Percy Shaw the inventor of cats’ eyes, and told him he needed a sign to attract people to the shop, so he made him one.”

Sadly, Ian was too late to save the sign when the building was demolished.

His work has taken him down mines, preserving the harsh realities of life before the pit closures. And he was artist in residence at Tetley’s brewery which closed after 89 years of production, helping to produce a book to document the working lives of the last workers and consider the significance of the brewery to the historic, cultural and social life of Leeds and West Yorkshire.

“One of the powers of social documentary is that it bears witness to people’s lives and communities. It is vital in this day and age, when a lot of photography deals with celebrity or imagined or created worlds. A lot of my work is industrial history, things that could easily pass without being recognised or recorded as historic or of social importance.”

Exhibitions over the years have been staged at prestigious venues including the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, the National Media Museum, The Lowry in Salford Quays, and the National Coal Mining Museum.

Numerous awards won over the years include a Heritage Lottery Fund Award for his Meltdown project documenting the closure of a Yorkshire foundry, the Lincolnshire & Humberside Photographic Award to commemorate the opening of the Humber Bridge, and the Pirelli/Southampton Arty Gallery Award.

But Bradfordians will best know him for his work on the on-going research project Born in Bradford that tracks the lives of more than 10,000 babies born between 2006 and 2009 to learn more about the health of the infant population in the district.

“Born in Bradford takes up quite a lot of my time,” he says. “It is really interesting. Some of the children I photographed as babies have started to go to school. We have 175 sets of twins and three sets of triplets.”

He adds: “I’ve got around six projects on the go at the moment. I’m just starting one with Chetham’s Library in Manchester – the oldest public lending library in the world.”

“I love meeting different people, and really enjoy working in the community,” he says.

As well as digital, he still shoots using film, often using black and white, and uses old plate cameras.

“A lot of people ask me: ‘Are you still doing ‘proper’ photography?’ This displays all sorts of subtleties, with more of a human touch.”

This year Ian’s work has been shown at London Art Fair and is currently part of a new exhibition at Bradford’s National Media Museum.

Ian’s photographs can be seen at The Art of Arrangement: Photography And The Still Life Tradition at the National Media Museum until February 10.