On a chilly January morning in 1912, some 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts stood up from their looms, walked out of their mill, and began a strike that would end up in the history books. The workers, who were mostly immigrant women from some 45 countries, sought not only higher wages and better working conditions, but also the more sublime rewards of their adopted country: art, dignity, and beauty. "We want bread," their rallying cry went, "and roses too."
Nine decades later, that sentiment is echoing again through American garment factories and homeless shelters thanks to an ambitious photography project called Unseen America. For the past two years, the Service Employees International Union, which is one of the country's largest labor unions, has been equipping migrant laborers, Filipino nannies, and asbestos-removal crews with 35-mm cameras and asking them to document their lives. "Most people in this society feel invisible," says Esther Cohen, founder of the project and executive director of Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of the SEIU's Local 1199.
Cohen hopes to change that — with 100 donated cameras, a cadre of professional photographers who are willing to teach classes for free, and, she says, the "only working people's art gallery in the country."
Cohen believes that being seen is the prelude to being heard. "When we did this project with building-maintenance workers and mounted exhibits in the buildings where they worked, the maintenance workers assumed another identity," she says. "They became people because they took photographs." But the project is as much about art as it is about politics. "I think the expectation is that working people don't have much relationship to wonderful culture. That's wrong. Working people have profound, amazing things to say and interesting ways of saying them," says Cohen, whose 26-year-old organization also holds creative-writing seminars for union members and organizes theater troupes to perform during hospital workers' lunch hours.
To date, some 1,500 people, ranging from doormen in Manhattan to steelworkers in Indiana, have taken photography courses and displayed their work. Alicia Truss, 42, lives in a small room in Holland House, a once-notorious Manhattan welfare hotel that now provides "supportive housing" for men and women with a history of homelessness, mental illness, or substance abuse. When Truss participated in an Unseen America project in late 2001, she shot dozens of photos, several of which appeared in an exhibit called 'No Place Like Home' at Local 1199's Martin Luther King Gallery. One of Truss's most compelling photos, which she titled "Exciting Chance," shows a small shop inside Manhattan's Port Authority that sells lottery tickets. The enormous neon letters above the store blare the word "Lotto," creating the unsettling twin effect of illumination and distortion. The potential sea of riches deep within a seedy transit station resembles an oasis — and a mirage.
"Some people walk by and think that they'll win the lottery one day — that it's going to be their turn, that they have a chance," Truss says about her photograph. "But others think they'll never win. I thought that was a subject that everyone could understand."
See more Unseen America photos on the Web (www.bread-and-roses.com/gallery/index.html). Contact Esther Cohen by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.