Even Doormen Like To Dance

"There's a whole second part, a second soul to everybody here that nobody seems to know about."
--Samuel Contreras, building maintenance worker, New York City, from "Unseen America."

The timing was coincidental, said Esther Cohen, but miraculous. Unseen America, a book of photography edited by Cohen, was released on Monday just as city centers across the nation filled with demonstrators demanding legalization for undocumented immigrants. The much-heralded Day Without an Immigrant was also the day that scores of immigrant workers celebrated their newfound fame as published photographers.

Fittingly, it is a labor union that is behind the publication of "Unseen America"; unions have been primary supporters of the burgeoning movement for the legalization of undocumented immigrants. Like the immigrant rights' movement, the book has been a long time coming.

Cohen runs Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of New York's Health and Human Services Union, which began sponsoring photography classes to workers and union members across the nation several years ago. What resulted were the incredible images of a largely invisible sector of society -- janitors, nurses, doormen, day laborers and clerks' views of the world from an artistic angle. "Unseen America" provides a view of the working class, which invariably includes images of immigrants, legal and illegal, working alongside American-born citizens.

The idea behind the book is simple; it seeks not so much to educate, but rather to expand the nation's view of its low-skilled, largely black and brown work force. It humanizes those who are rarely, if ever, shown as real people in popular culture. While the photos are by and about workers, they show much more than working life. The 200 pages are full of snapshots of relationships between co-workers who are also friends, between nurses and patients, bosses and employees. A number of the images depict day laborers during their nonworking hours -- picnicking at a lake, cooking dinner, serving a drink to the person behind the camera.

Editor Esther Cohen spoke with AlterNet about how the images were produced, and what they mean to the great immigration debate.

Maria Luisa Tucker: How did "Unseen America" come about?

"I met Dewey Redman when he came into the store for a prescription. He is a prostate cancer survivor, and he's still performing. I took this picture to express hope."
--Photo by Arthur Deavers, Cashier, Rite-Aid 1199 SEIU, New York City

Esther Cohen: In the '80s we did an exhibit called Images of Labor, and the idea was that we get famous artists to depict what it's like to be a worker in this country. We did an iconic set of posters [with artists including Ralph Fasanella, Sue Coe, Jacob Lawrence and Milton Glaser].

So, 10 years ago when I took over the program, I wanted to figure out a way for workers themselves to tell their own stories, to make them the famous people. I thought it was important to develop the voices of those in society who have very important stories to tell. … I could see that language was a big issue since many people came from other countries, but then a volunteer brought me 100 cameras that were donated by a store in her neighborhood, and we realized that no matter who you are and what culture you come from, you can see. Photography was the perfect medium for us.

MLT: How did you choose which photographs to include in this book?

EC: The photography students curated it. This book represents thousands of people. It was a mammoth task. We've done over 400 classes with about 10 to 20 people, but I would say the classes resulted in thousands and thousands of pictures. At the end of the classes, each group had an exhibit of their work and we asked the classes to choose which photographs to display. They were in a huge variety of places from bus stations to galleries to community centers. The book represents only 21 of the 400 photography classes that were offered by the project.

MLT: Do you think the photographs speak to the issue of illegal immigration?

EC: That's a really tough question, and I don't know that I can answer it. I would say that these pictures in an honest and meaningful way show the pain and joy of living in this society of workers. They show people's complex lives, and they show their lives without irony or an agenda. I was worried at first that the book wouldn't do justice to the project, but people were so happy at the book party. As I was leaving the book party at the Guggenheim, the woman who ran security came up to me and told me that she and her security staff all wanted copies of this book. She said that they had provided security for a ton of events at the Guggenheim and this was the first one they actually related to. That felt really good.

MLT: What percent of the photographers are immigrants? How many are here illegally?

EC: More than 80 percent of the photographers featured in the book are immigrants. I don't know about who is here legally and who is not. When I work with photographers, I ask them what they see, not what their legal status is. It's funny, I was on CNN's Anderson Cooper, and the interviewer asked how I would change the immigration laws and I laughed. There are a lot of laws I would change if I could, but unfortunately I don't have that power.

MLT: Why are some of the photographers anonymous?

"With each picture I feel like a gardener. When you take the film, each roll is like a seed and when you see your creation, it is a flower."
--Anonymous photographer, The Workplace Project, Long Island, N.Y.

EC: The migrant workers asked to be anonymous. They were the first group we did this project with. They were these guys doing mostly construction work in Long Island, standing by the side of the road. We wanted to work with them because their lives are never explored much, and also they were the subject of a lot of racism in the area they were living in.

During the photography class, we had a half a day of conversation about depiction -- is it good, is it bad? They were worried that the exhibit would jeopardize their relationship with the community. In the end, they decided to go ahead with the exhibit as long as those photographers who wanted to remain anonymous could do so. One of the day laborers actually became a professional photographer.

MLT: There has been a lot of debate over whether undocumented workers depress wages and increase unemployment for American citizens in low-skill jobs, particularly black Americans. I was wondering if, during this project, there has been any tension between illegal immigrants and workers who are citizens?

EC: I would say that when people come together to take this class, the room doesn't divide into people who are here legally or illegally. There hasn't been one form of dialogue -- it's not just about being legal or illegal. People have shared their work experiences, child rearing ideas, notions of life. I think it's silly to think about life in single-issue terms.

"Unseen America" is an ongoing project of Bread and Roses.

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