A Picture's Worth; Union's Photography Program Helps Workers Record Experiences

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 21, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Picture's Worth; Union's Photography Program Helps Workers Record Experiences

Byline: Sarah Marcisz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Three hundred rolls of undeveloped film wrapped in brown paper bags fill a tower of boxes in the Brooklyn apartment of Basil Saunders Jr., 47, a child-protection supervisor.

Photography has fascinated Mr. Saunders since middle school. Neighbors knew him as the boy who would bike through town, snapping pictures with the camera he always had clipped to his belt. But he never saw any of his pictures developed until last year.

Mr. Saunders is one of 2,000 workers nationwide who has taken photography classes through "Unseen America," a program of New York City-based Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199.

"Many of these workers feel invisible. Our hope is that by seeing the unseen, people will raise a cry for equal rights for all American workers," said Esther Cohen, executive director of Bread and Roses, who secured cameras and funds for the first photography class two years ago.

She said those who participate in the 12-week program, all of whom are either union members or learn about the program through a member, are "enormously underpaid" workers and immigrants. They are the asbestos-removal crews, road workers, migrant laborers, porters and doormen "who are the backbone of our economy."

Equipped with 35-millimeter cameras, five rolls of film a week and lessons in varied aspects of photography from lighting to film development, the workers were instructed to document their lives.

Professional photographers captured the lives of immigrants at the start of the 20th century and of poverty-stricken workers during the Depression years, but "Unseen America" is the first attempt to encourage workers to tell their own stories and struggles, Mrs. Cohen said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor held an opening reception for an exhibit there featuring 30 of these photographs with accompanying narratives, which will run through May 30.

" 'Unseen America' invites us to personally experience [the workers'] world. It reminds us that all work is meaningful and that all workers have dignity," said Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao at the Department of Labor's reception. "It calls upon us to stop for a moment, reflect, and appreciate the often-invisible labor that makes America work every day."

Xuan Pin Qin, a Chinatown garment worker who makes uniforms for the U.S. military, addressed the crowd in Chinese.

"Photography helps enrich my life and break the boredom of my day," he said through an interpreter.

Andrew Stern, president of SEIU Local 1199, which has a quarter-million members and a growing immigrant membership, said all people, no matter their position, search for creative expression. "There are people today who think that you are the job you do," Mr. Stern said. "They don't realize that there is an artful soul to everyone."

"Unseen America" graduates who traveled to the reception enjoyed something most immigrants don't experience being in the limelight.

Theresa Capriglione's shaking hands belied the confident, dimpled smile she flashed the swarm of photographers encircling her. Immigrant workers bring hard work and familial dedication to this country, she said, praising her Italian-immigrant parents.

The Long Island home she shares with them has no yard, but a small garden plot her father cultivates every year. It is her father's picture and message she brought to the nation's capital and presented to Mrs. Chao.

The exhibited photos, with accompanying titles and quotes, highlight divergent themes of hope and despair.

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