‘Working in America’ brings the faces of American labor to Aspen library
If You Go …
What: ‘Working in America’
Where: Pitkin County Library
When: On view through September; guided tours with Jane Saks on Monday, June 26, 10-11:30 a.m. and 2:30-4:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: You can share your working story on-site at the library or online at www.working.org
What do a New Jersey police officer, a Miami sex worker, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and an Olympic boxer have in common?
They work. How that work defines them, and how it shapes the ways we see them, is the subject of “Working in America,” a photography exhibition and ongoing anthropological project that’s now on view at the Pitkin County Library. Aspen is just its second stop in a planned national tour, following its debut in Chicago.
Seven-foot-tall photographs of 24 working people by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynsey Addario fill the ground floor of the library, where the show will be on view through September. The national undertaking, spanning 17 states and profiling people aged 21 to 87, was launched by Jane Saks, the artistic director of Project&. Saks will be in town for the Aspen Ideas Festival and is scheduled to give free tours of “Working in America” on Monday.
The exhibition is filled with arresting images like gun policy advocate and activist Lucia McBath crying at her son’s graveside. McBath left her job as a flight attendant to fight for gun control after her son was murdered in Florida in 2012. And there’s James, an electrician and body piercing artist who is photographed shirtless and displaying the tattoos that run from his waist to the top of his shaved head. The exhibition offers portraits of gig economy workers and a police officer, a social worker in New Orleans and the mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
They’re captured in vivid colors, simply doing their jobs — be it on the street, in an office or classroom, under a bridge or in a gym.
On the sides of the large-format photos, the subject’s name, occupation, age and hometown are listed. By not giving more information than that, Saks wanted to play with viewers’ implicit biases — to make people think about what they assumed about these people just from their appearances.
“You come up with a story about people,” Saks said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes you have an affinity for them, sometimes it’s racial profiling. We judge them in certain ways. I wanted to say, ‘Let this person tell the story for themselves.’”
After seeing the photos, viewers can pick up a 40-page catalog that goes along with the exhibition. There, you can read more about each of the subjects. And online, you can listen to them tell their stories (from Saks’ radio series “Working: Then and Now,” a collaboration with NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition”). Through the online portal, you can also find more stories from this ongoing project.
Aspenites and visitors also are encouraged to share their own stories of “Working in America.” With Project&, Saks is in search of new participatory models of culture and looking for ways to use art to bridge the widening economic inequality gap in the U.S. The library exhibition includes several kiosks, in which anyone can tell their “working story” and become a part of the nationwide project.
“I was thinking I wanted to do something about economic inequality and where did the dignity in work go?” Saks explained. “‘Working in America’ is the story of all of us. We always talk about ‘the workforce,’ but we don’t talk about the workers. The workers are all of us.”
The idea was inspired, in part, by Studs Terkel’s iconic 1974 oral history “Working,” in which he defined work as a search “for daily meaning and daily bread.” With work in the midst of a radical transformation, from the advent of the gig economy and the eradication on traditional jobs due to automation, Saks wanted to update Terkel’s portrait of American work and its meaning. Saks’ parents were friends with Terkel in Chicago when she was a child. As a kid, she got to witness Terkel himelf at work.
“I spent my childhood driving around the city with him and my father,” she recalled.
The Pitkin County Library might seem an unlikely choice of venue for this high-profile show in a town glutted with art galleries. It was vital to Saks to show “Working” only in free public spaces like the Aspen library. There, she explained, people from all walks of life are most likely to interact with it.
In a socially stratified community like Aspen, the library is indeed among the few spaces shared equally between everyone from the ski bum to the billionaire, where toddlers come for storytime and the homeless come for shelter and all are welcome.
“Instead of a self-conscious way of bringing people together, I wanted to go to a place that naturally brought people together,” she said. “We have differences. We are not all the same. But the library is one of those natural places where we find ourselves together.”
Saks is hoping to bring “Working in America” to towns and cities across the U.S. after Aspen. She’s currently raising funds to keep it on the road.
The library is planning a community read of Terkel’s “Working” in August, with discounted copies available for purchase and community book discussions. Before it closes on Sept. 30, it hopes to work the show into Aspen School District curricula.
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