Workers’ Power and Photogenicity

sandwich worker

By Amien Essif

Ever go to a pro-worker website and scroll through their articles only to find that every photo looks the same? It’s an eye-level shot of a group of picketteers, probably taken by the writer. Part of the blame for the monotony lies on the budget of the publication which is usually (read: always) too small to pay a separate, trained photographer to capture the energy of a protest in a few well-composed shots.

But the rest of the problem is a problem of perspective. The rarity of strikes and worker-led protests creates the impression that it is the protest itself which is the story. The editor tells a contributor (many lefty websites don’t really have staff writers anymore) that the Nurse’s union just voted to strike because of a disagreement about overtime. After a few days of interviews and  online research, the writer submits the article and then the editor finds a photo on Flikr.com (the photo sharing cite) of the nurse’s union hoisting picket signs and the piece is ready to go live on the website.

This is the best way to do it on a budget, and in this media economy it’s pointless to chastise an indy publication for economizing when it can. But sometimes it’s not just economy that generates the slideshow of protesters with their fists in the air and a bull horn in soft focus behind their heads. In fact some publications rely on protest photos because they see this as a way to promote “people power” or “worker power” and to publicize the kinds of images of revolt that don’t show up in the mainstream media.

But this exposes a brute interpretation of how people’s power surfaces, and about the ability of a photo to convey it. At my workplace—a giant pizza chain franchise in Chicago—a few of the workers discovered that we were being cheated out of pay that we were promised when hired. We talked in the parking lot one evening outside of the store and decided we’d push the managers on it and then work our way up to a wage theft lawsuit if we didn’t have any luck.

We ended up writing a letter to the owner that went unanswered. A few weeks later, the store was bought out by a different company and the problem has been more-or-less addressed. Maybe it was because of us, or maybe not.

We didn’t manage to build up to a strike, we didn’t get to meet the owner, and we didn’t even get the reward of having our struggle documented either. But the power of workers acting collectively starts at the very bottom—the moment a worker puts their first pizza in the oven or mops their first floor, they have power. They’re generating value that the owner depends on to make his own living. A strike, in addition to it’s symbolic value, is the absence of pizzas and clean floors. Photos that exclusively depict workers protesting is thus only half the story.

What do I suggest as a good feature photo for a story about Nurses voting to strike? Nurses at work is an option. It would point out how much more important caregivers are to a hospital than the hospital’s administration, contrary to what their salaries suggest.

Another option would be a photo of two workers talking to each other. That’s where workers’ power becomes collective power: with the first conversation.

Of course, these options aren’t always available on Flikr.com.  It would take a professional photojournalist to actually go into a hospital and come out with images to tell the real story. And since photojournalism is something only a handful of mainstream publications can afford anymore, that might not be possible for Labor Notes or the Socialist Worker.

Nevertheless, considering the frequency of protest photos sometimes I think even a nice stock image of a stethoscope would be refreshing. A metaphor for a heart beat or something. Just an idea. But what is certain is that the reliance on protest photos is evidence that the narrative of working-class struggle has been atrophied by decades of capitalist media, and we can’t fight it by continuing to push in the same direction, with the same camera angle.

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