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Workers Dreaming


elin o'Hara slavick


"Hell begins with the idea that things can be made better. Paradise is rest, isn’t it? Repose. You go to paradise after you’ve worked three shifts running, twenty-four hours without a break. You stop and there’s the pure pleasure of stopping, doing nothing, lying down." – John Berger


             Workers Dreaming is a series of large color photographs of workers with their eyes closed. While standing in an old brewery that is now a gallery or in a coffee shop that was once a train station, I am struck by unmarked history, by the daily forgetting of those workers who built and worked in these transformed spaces and the invisibility of the workers there today. I imagine thousands of workers capping bottles, pouring steaming liquids, wiping their brows, sweeping the floor, collecting tickets, serving coffee and daydreaming.  These imaginary, remembered and actual workers inspire the photographs. I want my photographs to transform the way we see, acknowledge, interact with and remember workers today. Although our eyes are open, we are often blind to beauty, to injustice, to cultural difference and to class structure. While the workers' eyes are closed in my photographs, they see and know their situation intimately. Denying us their gaze but offering us a meditative space, they are empowered, lost in their own imaginings, desires, hopes and self-consciousness.

            In the spirit of August Sander's portraits of the "archetypal German people" - often of bakers, butchers and bankers in emerging "modern" Germany - I photograph workers in our emerging "post-modern" world of global economy. Rather than an exhaustive "scientific or objective" photographic catalogue of "a people," workers dreaming are everywhere I go and the project includes immigrant and indigenous workers in France, Cuba, Italy and the United States. In dialogue with contemporary photographer Julie Moos's portraits of housecleaners with the homeowners who employ them and Sebastio Salgado's photographs of "workers of the world", Workers Dreaming performs in the spaces between labor and leisure, agency and servitude. What do workers dream about and meditate on while they work? Are they thinking of where they would rather be? What do workers look like, especially in the United States where many jobs have been exported to non-union and low-wage countries? What workers are visibly left?  They are majestic, mortal, heroic, tired, beautiful and really human.

            Fundamentally these photographs come from my deep respect for labor and those who perform it and who are often under-recognized, under-paid, and unnoticed. I have been a waitress, a chambermaid, a cashier, and am now an educator, artist and activist. I have marched with farm workers across North Carolina for their rights to organize and for a fair wage. I am frustrated by people ignoring those who serve them as if they are invisible. I want the photographs to change the way people think about and act towards workers. One photograph of Tommie Horton, a groundskeeper, has started to do just that. Many people recognize him because they have seen my photograph and now engage in dialogue with him – a man they never before acknowledged. Hirshhorn Curator Olga Viso says about this photograph, "This work has a wonderful joie de vivre, a sense of humanity's ability to make the most of life or a situation, no matter how mundane, menial or dire the circumstances."

            Workers Dreaming was initially inspired by my trip across country as a photographer's assistant to Joel Sternfeld for his book On This Site. We were seeking photographs of the banal where something tragic had occurred: where Karen Silkwood was run off the Oklahoma road; where a boy was slain in a drive-by shooting; where a doctor who provided abortions was shot. Everywhere, we met workers who were willing to help us. My workers are not "historical" in the conventional sense, but it does not take tragedy to make history, it takes work.

Workers Dreaming has been exhibited at: The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Durham, NC; The Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC; The Brewhouse Space 101 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The Weatherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, North Carolina; The Kingston Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts; The Armory in West Palm Beach, Florida; The Annex in New York City; The Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina; The Watkins College of Art in Nashville, Tennessee; Chatham Mills in Pittsboro, North Carolina; The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University; The Pinkard Gallery at The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; and Square Blue Gallery in Los Angeles.



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