Virtually every minute of our waking hours we are inundated with photographs. Think of all the photographs that you saw in the last 24 hours: on your cellphone, computer, or iPad; in newspapers, magazines, books, advertising on food and other products; and even in your family’s photo albums. Now think of how many of these images depicted workers, at work.
Think of all the photographs that you saw in the last 24 hours: on your cellphone, computer, or iPad; in newspapers, magazines, books, advertising on food and other products; and even in your family’s photo albums. Now think of how many of these images depicted workers at work. In all probability, very few, and possibly none. That’s astonishing when you think that most working people spend more time at work than at home or with family or friends.
Growing up in a working class family, I was fascinated by the notion of work from an early age. When I became a documentary photographer, I quickly developed an interest in recording workers and their culture. I photographed immigrant workers on construction sites and garment factories, foreign migrant farm workers who come to Canada annually on temporary permits, and child workers.
In 1999 I was invited to undertake one of the most important projects in my career. The Canadian Auto Workers union (which has since merged with another union and become Unifor) asked me produce a book on workers across Canada as a way of marking the millennium. I travelled from coast to coast, documenting work life in over 100 locations in the 13 provinces and territories.
Working in 35mm with black and white film, I shot some 575 rolls of film. Of these, from self-made contact sheets, I selected about 1500 shots and had a professional lab make them into 8 × 10 inch work prints, which I slowly reduced to the 200 images that make up the book, Canadians at Work. A separate edition, Canadiens au travail, was published simultaneously in French. It was printed in Toronto on heavy gloss stock, in duotone. I oversaw the printing and signed off on each sheet at the printing press. From start to finish, the project took 18 months to complete. The introductory essay is by Sam Gindin. I commissioned a small number of pictures from other photographers: Denyse Gérin-Lajoie and Iva Zimová in Quebec, Schuster Gindin in Ontario, George Webber in Alberta, and Ursula Heller in British Columbia.
The book was produced at arm’s length; that is, I made artistic decisions independently of the sponsor. A copy was sent to everyone whose picture appeared in the book, to main libraries across the country, and also to the library of every town represented.
This book has been a voyage of photography, an exploration into the hidden landscape of workplaces and workers’ faces that defines Canada as much as anything could.
One of the misconceptions that I had about the modern workplace is that workers worked together. Despite great advances in technology, most workers end up working alone, with minimal or no possibility of conversation or interaction with others. The nature of most industrial work is that an individual is merely a cog in an elaborate setup, such as a worker’s role in a football field–sized auto plant where her every move has been predetermined by an efficiency plan or the preset speed of a conveyor belt. In most cases, workers have no time to talk to anyone, for they must concentrate on their specific task, whether it is selecting herring fillets in Marystown, Newfoundland; inspecting freshly blown glass bottles in suburban Toronto; wiring cars in Oshawa, Ontario; or mucking ore at 975 metres below ground in a nickel mine in Vancouver. Workers are usually alone with their machines.
Being photographed seemed to validate the workers. They had always seen “the other” in camera images. Now it would be their turn to be witnessed by the camera. Some could not contain the sheer glee they felt in that moment and reacted in curiously bizarre ways. They would self-mockingly make derisive comments, such as “Good luck finding any one of us actually working around here!” or “What makes you think we work here?” Their comments were ironic because moments later they would be back at their conveyor belt, or in their truck, or inside an airplane engine, or another work station, digging, packaging, sorting, cooking, sweeping, washing, welding, painting, sewing, bolting, cutting, loading, driving, boring into bedrock, producing, working … working.
The experience of photographing someone in a collaborative way — with the consent of the worker (or other person in front of the camera) — becomes an act of solidarity between two humans. If the conditions are right and there is honest rapport between the person in front of the camera and the person behind the camera, I believe that the picture already exists, as if it were a gift, and the photographer merely has to receive it. The power of a photograph is that the moment it captures outlasts the passage of time.
One day, I had focused my camera on James Cave, a welder working in an auto parts factory. He was wearing a bubble mask that completely covered his face and neck. A flexible hose connected the mask to an overhead pipe that carried a supply of oxygen. As a result, he was completely tethered to his workstation, unable to talk to anyone or relate to anything except production. He looked as if he were from outer space. I managed to make eye contact with him through his bubble, and putting his welding gun down and removing his gloves and mask, he revealed a satisfied, youthful face. He understood the nature of the project well. With pride, he said, “You are a worker too. Let me take your picture.” No greater compliment could have been offered me. I handed him my camera, and the tables were turned, with me being the one standing in front of the camera.