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‘Working America’ Documents Their Lives

May 14, 2003

The workshops always start out the same _ with the participants asked to look through magazines, newspapers and other popular media to find images that reflect their lives.

When they can’t find those images, the cameras come out and ``Unseen America″ springs to life.

The photography program was started two years ago by the Bread and Roses Cultural Project, the nonprofit cultural arm of 1199/SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. It gives working people _ often immigrants in service-industry or blue-collar jobs _ a chance to document their day-to-day lives.

The images they’ve captured have been shown throughout the United States. The biggest exhibit to date _ 40 images, each measuring almost 7 feet high and more than 3 feet wide _ went on display this week at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., where it will run through the end of May.

The project began in New York City, although sessions are now being held in other cities. The photos in the labor department show are from the New York area.

``If this society is a democracy, built on all the democratic principles, then it’s important for the whole society to be heard, to be relevant, to be represented. And that’s not what’s happening,″ Esther Cohen, executive director of Bread and Roses, said.

In the first series of workshops, in 2001, participants ranged from Mexican day laborers from Long Island to garment workers in Chinatown and took 12 weeks of classes. Equipped with 100 donated cameras, the shutterbugs fanned out to tell the stories of their lives.

``No one ever really asks us to do that,″ said Valentina Paljusaj, a 37-year-old New York insurance company worker who took part in the first workshops. ``Everyone was pretty proud.″

Her image in the exhibit is of her Yugoslav mother, kneading dough to make pide, a food native to her homeland. ``That’s what it’s about, that’s who we are, that’s where we’re from,″ Paljusaj said.

Kenny Shane, 51, who took the classes in 2001, wanted to show he was more than just a building superintendent. ``I have talent, I have vision, I have hopes to do something better than my menial task,″ he said. Shane shot pictures of the building where he works.

Other photos in the exhibit show a housekeeper hugging her employer and day laborers standing around on a winter’s day waiting to get hired.

More than 1,500 people nationwide have taken the workshops, and more than 300 cameras have been handed out. Numerous service groups have been represented, even those not connected to the health care industry, which forms the union’s core constituency.

Janitors in Oakland, Calif., and public service employees in West Virginia have taken part in the program. Plans are under way to take it to a Lakota Sioux reservation and to meatpackers in Nebraska.

There have been 70 exhibits, from Ohio to Illinois to Washington state.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao decided to bring the photos to the nation’s capital after seeing one of the shows. ``They have come out with such moving pictures of their fellow workers and the conditions under which they work _ it’s very inspiring,″ she said.


On the Net:

Bread and Roses Cultural Project: http://www.bread-and-roses.com

Department of Labor: http://www.dol.gov

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