- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Three hundred rolls of undeveloped film wrapped in brown paper bags fill a tower of boxes in the Brooklyn apartment of Basil Saunders Jr., 47, a child-protection supervisor.

Photography has fascinated Mr. Saunders since middle school. Neighbors knew him as the boy who would bike through town, snapping pictures with the camera he always had clipped to his belt. But he never saw any of his pictures developed — until last year.

Mr. Saunders is one of 2,000 workers nationwide who has taken photography classes through “Unseen America,” a program of New York City-based Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199.

“Many of these workers feel invisible. Our hope is that by seeing the unseen, people will raise a cry for equal rights for all American workers,” said Esther Cohen, executive director of Bread and Roses, who secured cameras and funds for the first photography class two years ago.

She said those who participate in the 12-week program, all of whom are either union members or learn about the program through a member, are “enormously underpaid” workers and immigrants. They are the asbestos-removal crews, road workers, migrant laborers, porters and doormen “who are the backbone of our economy.”

Equipped with 35-millimeter cameras, five rolls of film a week and lessons in varied aspects of photography from lighting to film development, the workers were instructed to document their lives.

Professional photographers captured the lives of immigrants at the start of the 20th century and of poverty-stricken workers during the Depression years, but “Unseen America” is the first attempt to encourage workers to tell their own stories and struggles, Mrs. Cohen said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor held an opening reception for an exhibit there featuring 30 of these photographs with accompanying narratives, which will run through May 30.

“‘Unseen America’ invites us to personally experience [the workers] world. It reminds us that all work is meaningful and that all workers have dignity,” said Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao at the Department of Labor’s reception. “It calls upon us to stop for a moment, reflect, and appreciate the often-invisible labor that makes America work every day.”

Xuan Pin Qin, a Chinatown garment worker who makes uniforms for the U.S. military, addressed the crowd in Chinese.

“Photography helps enrich my life and break the boredom of my day,” he said through an interpreter.

Andrew Stern, president of SEIU Local 1199, which has a quarter-million members and a growing immigrant membership, said all people, no matter their position, search for creative expression. “There are people today who think that you are the job you do,” Mr. Stern said. “They don’t realize that there is an artful soul to everyone.”

“Unseen America” graduates who traveled to the reception enjoyed something most immigrants don’t experience — being in the limelight.

Theresa Capriglione’s shaking hands belied the confident, dimpled smile she flashed the swarm of photographers encircling her. Immigrant workers bring hard work and familial dedication to this country, she said, praising her Italian-immigrant parents.

The Long Island home she shares with them has no yard, but a small garden plot her father cultivates every year. It is her father’s picture and message she brought to the nation’s capital and presented to Mrs. Chao.

The exhibited photos, with accompanying titles and quotes, highlight divergent themes of hope and despair. Some depictions are dark, bitterly intoning realities of hard labor, low wages, long hours and harsh surroundings.

Some pictures show family, friends, fun times and dancing. Other experiences are bittersweet, such as that of the mother who photographed her grown son getting a haircut because a history of juggling two jobs caused her to miss his first haircut and other childhood milestones.

When Bread and Roses was organized 25 years ago, it “filled a void” for a cultural focus in labor unions. It organized the first “working-class art gallery,” highlighting the lives of Chinese, Asian, Puerto Rican and Hispanic immigrants, who today constitute “at least 50 percent” of “Unseen America’s” classes, said Eleanor Tilson, a Bread and Roses board member.

Besides sponsoring “Unseen America,” Bread and Roses collaborates with art teachers to develop projects geared toward immigrant students, hosts a members’ art show, offers creative-writing classes and organizes a theater troupe.

Since 2000, 60 to 80 labor unions across the nation from Silicon Valley to the steel center of Youngstown, Ohio, have implemented their own “Unseen America” programs seeking to “highlight that greater human identity,” Mrs. Tilson said.

Cultural programs can be a catalyst for unifying the working class, Mrs. Cohen said. “It’s not just about self-esteem; it also emphasizes collectivity,” she said. “It binds the working class together.”

But excessive focus on immigrant and working-class culture could be divisive and exacerbate hurdles to attaining labor equality, said David Gersten, executive director at the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Sterling, Va.-based think tank “devoted exclusively to the promotion of colorblind equal opportunity and racial harmony.”

“America is a melting pot, not a boiling pot,” Mr. Gersten said. “We have a long history of effective assimilation. The decision of the Department of Labor to sponsor programs like Bread and Roses, which is paid for by a health-and-human-services union, will circumvent that proven history of helping immigrants find their place in American culture.”

When “Unseen America” makes its way to Washington this June, 12 janitors will set out with cameras to portray what it is like to clean the corridors of the rich and powerful.

Many of the amateur photographers, including Basil Saunders Jr., plan to continue taking pictures. His limited budget only allows for buying film; developing it, he hopes, will come later.

“I have to take pictures of what I can today. I don’t want to miss the opportunity,” he said. “Maybe after I’m gone, my pictures will be developed and people will know what I’ve seen and done.”


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