What Does Work Look Like?

Rush hour (New York, NY)
Rush hour (New York, NY)

What does work look like for you?

For me, it looks like a 30 minute commute by train and by foot in a major U.S. city followed by eight or more hours at a desk. I often assume that this is how others experience being at work (and it is pretty standard among my friends), but in fact work takes many, many different forms – from a goatherd, to an farmer and craftsman, to a subway performer, to an international rock star and more. Today’s post is a photo essay by my dad, Eddie, about what work looks like across cultures and countries.

Scrolling through these pictures reminds me of how fluid the concept of work really is. Imagine if your morning led to the scenes and experiences depicted here. What would that mean for you and for your family? What would it smell like and sound like? Would you be physically comfortable? What would the act of work mean, and how would your body feel at the end of the day? What, fundamentally, does it mean to work?

I asked my dad, who is a cinematographer and does photography in his free time, a few questions about his work.

Factory
Workers assemble at a sneaker factory before their next shift (Dongguan, China)

 

Cafeteria workers at a sneaker factory (Dongguan, China)
Cafeteria workers at a sneaker factory (Dongguan, China)

 

Why you are drawn to photograph people at work?

When people are at work, generally, they’re going about their business. That is, they’re not particularly self-conscious. As an observer, I count on my ability to be present without being particularly felt as an intrusive presence. This is as if to say, “You go ahead and work. I’ll do my work, too.” When people – be they musicians, surgeons, drivers, or factory workers – go about their work, I can go about mine and harvest authentic imagery. Unless the situation is urgent, I like to work from a distance at first, so my subjects can become comfortable, and I can also get a better sense of their environment by shooting with a wide-angle lens.

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Office workers at a sneaker factory (Dongguan, China)

 

sneaker factory worker
A young woman gluing on the assembly line at a sneaker factory (Dongguan, China)

 

Factory
Not all work is done by machine at the sneaker factory. Though workers sit close together, it’s rare that any conversation occurs. (Dongguan, China)

 

Waiting Room
Operating room nurses aides on break at New York Hospital (New York, NY)

 

Heart surgeons performing bypass surgery at New York Hospital (New York, NY).
Heart surgeons performing bypass surgery at New York Hospital (New York, NY)

 

Construction workers mix concrete for a new apartment building downtown (Dongguan, China)
Construction workers mix concrete for a new apartment building downtown (Dongguan, China)

 

Goatherd
Goatherd on Brusje Road (Hvar, Croatia)

 

Does seeing so many different workplaces affect what work means to you?

Seeing people at work has always interested me. I suppose I’ve developed a more nuanced approach to what work is. In my own work, it’s important for me to come with a point of view; literally a sense of where to stand.

For lots of workers, where work occurs is a very defined space; for example a desk or work station on an assembly line. Anesthesiologists, I’ve learned, work at the head of the operating table. When people do repetitive work on assembly lines, I wonder how they make it through the day because the repetition seems soul crushing. They appear to be functioning as 1- task machines. Work has quietly and insistently come to define who we are. It’s often the first question asked in social situations. It’s an easy way to classify and connect with people. Still, I’m pretty sure, as humans, we’re more than the work we do.

Cookie seller
Cookie maker plies her delectables in Jelsa (Hvar, Croatia)

 

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An iPhone and iPad inspector. Much of the quality control work is done by people, not just machines. (Shenzen, China).

 

Market
Street kitchen chef (Dongguan, China)

 

Scraps
Butchers preparing stew meat at outdoor market (Johannesburg, South Africa)

 

Stew chef at an outdoor market (Johannesburg, South Africa)
Stew chef at an outdoor market (Johannesburg, South Africa)

 

Aerialist rehearsing for rollout of a new jet TACA Airlines (San Salvador, El Salvador)
Aerialist rehearsing for rollout of a new jet for TACA Airlines (San Salvador, El Salvador)

 

Aerialist rehearsing for rollout of a new jet TACA Airlines (San Salvador, El Salvador)
Aerialist rehearsing for rollout of a new jet for TACA Airlines (San Salvador, El Salvador)

 

The boss
Bruce Springsteen, at his last concert at The Meadowlands, November 2009 (East Rutherford, New Jersey)

 

A violin player
Lorenzo Laroc, violinist, at the Grand Central subway station (New York, NY)

 

What is your attitude toward your own work as a cinematographer?

When I was younger, I counted on others to be the all-knowing providers of fertile opportunity. I didn’t realize that many producer/directors had only a slightly better idea than I did of what they wanted from a given situation. There’s always this moment when people’s dreams of what could, what’s imagined, what’s wished for, meets the reality of ‘what is.’ I like to give myself time (this might be 30 seconds or 5 minutes) and space (again, where to stand, where to set up) to assess the possibilities. When false urgency is reduced or eliminated, then better, more realistic and imaginative choices can be made.

This bassist was part of a three-man band playing on a New York City subway platform.
This bassist was part of a three-man band playing on a subway platform (New York, NY)

 

Paul Edwards, a farmer, and his Belgian plowhorse (Lindon, TN)
Paul Edwards, a farmer, and his Belgian plowhorse (Lindon, TN)

 

Paul Edwards building a shelf for a fruit stand (Lindon, TN)
Paul Edwards building a shelf for a fruit stand (Lindon, TN)

 

To see more of Eddie’s work, you can visit his Facebook page, his website or find him on Twitter.

Tell us – what does your work look like?

6 Comments

  1. Nick M.

    Loved this piece. It reminds me of a sermon given via radio by the Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador:

    “How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work—that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his work-bench, and that each metal-worker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand is performing a priestly office! How many cabdrivers I know are listening to this message there in their cabs…You are a priest at the wheel, my friend, if you work with honesty, consecrating that taxi of yours to God – bearing a message of peace and love to the passengers who ride in your cab. (20 Nov. 1977)

    • Thanks, Nick!! for looking and reading and taking the time to respond. Romero’s words, how true, are the most aspirational, romantic (like me), iteration of what work, what living can be. Shall we make a distinction between “job” (as in it’s ‘Just a job’) and work (as in “it’s life’s work”)?
      Happy late Summer!

  2. Paula

    Wow. What beautiful words and pictures these are. It’s like Studs Terkel and Lewis Hine got together with Brandon Stanton and convinced him to shoot b&w. Bookmarking, Evernoting, and sharing.

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