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Empowering students through photography: unseenamerica teacher Zoeann Murphy. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Picture Your Life
An innovative photography class has changed some union members’ view of the world around them

By Kathryn Lurie

Tears well up in Sue Waltz’s eyes as she speaks fondly of her grandfather. “I wish I knew the power of photography back when I was little and my grandfather was alive. I would have liked to take a picture of his hands. He used to say, ‘Look at that callous. That’s a working man’s hand.’ And I wish I had a picture of it.” She stops to reflect for a moment. “I think a lot of times we don’t notice the details about people, the little details.”

The “little details” are central to a 12-week photography class designed specifically for union workers like Sue Waltz, taught by Zoeann Murphy, a fresh-faced 22-year-old graduate of SUNY Purchase.

“The basic concept [of the class],” Murphy says, “is that we’re constantly bombarded by pictures of Hollywood and rock stars, and the whole idea of America is this crazy small bracket of people, you know? Really wealthy and famous and beautiful people—that’s not the fabric of America, which is so complex. . . . There are so many interesting people and things and jobs, and this is giving [the students] a chance to show that through photography.”

The class, which is held in the Service Employees International Union building in Albany on Thursday evenings, is part of a program called unseenamerica, created as a division of Bread and Roses, the 28-year-old nonprofit cultural program of 1199SEIU. Although it’s rare that unions have cultural divisions, it’s becoming more widely understood that it’s important to incorporate culture into members’ lives.

Esther Cohen, the executive director of Bread and Roses, was a key founder of unseenamerica. “Unseenamerica began by accident, really,” she says. “A volunteer in our office brought in 100 donated cameras, and we used those to devise a program, using images and text, to help people tell whatever stories they wanted about their lives.”

The first classes were held in New York City, and each had between 10 and 15 students. Professional photographers and writers taught the six classes, each of which were made up of a different group: migrant workers, nannies, home-health aides, day laborers, homeless senior men, and building workers.

Murphy, who is from Saratoga, is the regional coordinator of the program’s upstate New York division, unseenamerica New York State. She found 1199SEIU when she was searching for a way to put her degree in photography to use for social justice. “I’m a photographer and an activist,” she says, “and I’ve always wanted to do something that combined [the two]. I’ve used my photography to document movements, but there’s an interpretation thing there that I’ve always felt very weird about. . . . I found Bread and Roses by finding 1199SEIU, a union that’s dedicated to social justice, and I went down [to New York City] for an interview to see if I could photograph for their newsletter.”

Gary McWilliams (top) and his photo, Workbench. “This is where I do a lot of my jewelry work. I try to keep it clean and I get very frustrated working in a dirty area; I started to straighten the workbench but then decided not to. I was documenting the adverse conditions I am forced to work under.”

Sue Waltz (center) and her photo, Our Kitchen. “This was my grandmother’s kitchen, my mother’s kitchen, and now it’s mine.”

Patricia Jabonaski (bottom) and her photo, Morning. “It was a beautiful morning. When I think about morning I feel peaceful, relaxed, and happy.”

As it happened, the 1199SEIU didn’t need a newsletter photographer. But since they liked Murphy’s pictures, they sent her down the hall to meet with Cohen. “She’s really incredible and wild and interesting,” Murphy says of Cohen, “and she does all these incredible arts/social-justice projects, which is what Bread and Roses is all about. And you know, I kind of fell in love and started voluntering and interning at the office in the city.”

The AFL-CIO decided to fund unseenamerica upstate, and Murphy was designated to lead the series of classes around the state in partnership with the AFL-CIO Training Centers. Bread and Roses has brought unseenamerica through AFL to places other than upstate, too. “This is the first [class] for upstate New York,” says Murphy, “but we have classes on Long Island, Madison, Wis., South Dakota, Florida, and so on.”

The AFL-CIO partners with other organizations in cities where classes are offered, and funds all the classes, along with the necessary supplies (film, processing, etc.). Locally, Bokland Custom Visuals helps out by giving Murphy great deals on film and the processing and printing of photos. “They’ve been very helpful,” Murphy says, “They’re interested in the project, so they’ve been working with us by not charging us very much.”

At an Albany coffee shop, student Patricia Jabonaski sits with two of her fellow students, Sue Waltz and Gary McWilliams. A principal account clerk in Building 12 on the state office campus and a union activist, Jabonaski describes how she first found out about unseenamerica when she attended a conference called the Annual Capital Area Labor Federation Delegates Meeting at the Labor Temple in Albany this past spring. While there, she discovered a collection of blown-up photographs in the back of the auditorium. “Some of the pictures really gave you a lot of emotion,” she explains. “I’ve always had this desire to be a photographer, so when I was looking at them I said, ‘Geez, I’d love to do that.’ ” She picked up the Bread and Roses flyer that accompanied the exhibit, and discovered that a class was going to be offered in Albany. She made an announcement about the class in her local union newspaper and drew about 10 responses from people who were interested.

The fundamental objective of the class is to bring unseen people, workplaces and such to the forefront of our minds—to make them seen. “It’s a process of deconstructing certain conditioning that we have,” says Murphy. “We’re so conditioned to see in a certain way and to make assumptions based on our perceptions because of how we were raised . . . so this project ideally will start to introduce the fact that these other people that you see—maybe you’re afraid of them because they look different, but they’re not different—they’re human and we all can relate to each other on some level.”

Sifting through photographs taken for Murphy’s class reveals a jeweler hunched over a desk with a drink in his hand, eyebrows furrowed, looking exhausted and lost in thought; another picture, taken by a hospital worker, shows a closet lined with shelves filled with cases and bins of surgical instruments. Another is a portrait of a CDTA bus driver relaxing and gazing, expressionless, at the camera.

Although there is specific structure to the class, Murphy stresses that her students can take pictures of whatever they want. “They’re really open,” she says of her students, “and if they hate the assignment they don’t have to do it, they can just take pictures.”

Waltz, who also works in Building 12, was at the same ALF Meeting and saw the photo exhibit as well. “They reminded me of pictures I had,” she says. “I wanted to take pictures in black and white; I love black-and-white photography.”

“I like to bring in the idea that I’m a union activist,” adds Jabonaski, “and that there are a lot of union activists who are unseen. But they’re very instrumental in getting the project done.”

“The way I like to teach the class,” explains Murphy, “is I ask a question in English and they answer me in photography. I’ll ask a question like ‘What’s important to you?’ or ‘Where do you work?’ Those are some of the assignments.”

Murphy guides her students with a composed, encouraging demeanor. She points out tiny details of the students’ photographs and asks thoughtful questions, bringing an energy to her work that is indicitive of her passion for the project.

At the mention of Murphy’s name, the students grin and start chatting about their teacher appreciatively. “She’s really fun,” says Gary McWilliams, a clerk at Building 12 and part-time watchmaker. “She brings a nice subtle enthusiasm to the whole thing. I love her mannerisms. It’s like she’s very calm on the outside, but she’s bouncing off the walls on the inside.”

“She answers all your questions; she’s very supportive,” Jabonaski adds.

“I definitely look forward to the class,” says McWilliams, grinning. “My anniversary was on the eighth; I thought I could fanagle my way out of it and celebrate on the seventh, but that didn’t fly. I kinda knew it wouldn’t.”

The students talk about the importance of photography and how it captures moments in time—how pictures are relied on to remember the way things were. Says Waltz, “The people who stayed in the course became much more aware and they will continue to document history. I think they’ll take pictures that need to be taken. Like when you see the picture of the loggers in the Adirondacks in the early 1900s. It was just a job people had. But now you look at those pictures and you’re fascinated by what they’re wearing, the tools that they were using, even their faces, what they looked like.

“Unseenamerica has made me look at everyday scenes and people and objects in a totally different way,” she adds. “It is no longer just a manhole cover. It is who made the cover, who moves it, and who works beneath it.”

McWilliams agrees, and points out that the program wants to illustrate unseen laborers: the people that you wouldn’t notice until they’re gone, like garbage collectors; the people behind the scenes who are responsible for making the world go ’round.

“I love capturing history,” Waltz adds. “That’s what it is, it’s capturing history.”

The unseenamerica class will begin exhibiting their work in local arts venues and other public spaces beginning this fall. When asked how she felt knowing that her work will eventually be put on display, Jabonaski replies, “It’s really funny, because I’m usually behind the scenes. I was just telling Zoe that I was curious to see how the pictures would turn out.”

Unseenamerica will release a book of photos and stories next spring called unseenamerica, which will be published by Regan Books. “We hope this is the first of many,” says Cohen. “The idea is to give voice to the many people in this society who must be heard, if we are to become a true, strong democracy.”

“Really,” stresses Murphy, “the long-term goal [of the program] is that the unseen becomes seen and people start learning to see the seen and the unseen and to live in their communities comfortably—to be treated equally.”

And though she’ll never be able to take a picture of her grandfather’s calloused hands, Sue Waltz, like the rest of the unseenamerica students, plans to continue documenting her own life to safeguard her precious memories. “Photographs are like a drop of amber,” says Waltz. “They capture something and preserve it forever.”

For more information on unseenamerica, to take a class, or to sponsor a class, call Zoeann Murphy at 785-4672 or e-mail her at unseenamerica@cdalf.org. There will be a reception and exhibit opening for the unseenamerica class on Sept. 9 from 6 to 8 PM at 1199 SEIU building (155 Washington Ave., Albany). There will also be an exhibit at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy from Nov. 17-24.

 


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