Inspired by Studs Terkel’s “Working”—a collection of interviews investigating what people do to earn their daily bread and how they feel about the work they do—Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer Lynsey Addario collaborated with Chicago architectural firm Studio Gang to create this traveling exhibition, which profiles twenty-four people from seventeen states, ranging in age from twenty-one to eighty-seven. From Chicago artist and disability rights activist Riva Lehrer to Floridian professional escort Ava St. Claire, “Working in America” addresses gender and racial inequality, underemployment, crumbling public systems and the importance of open public discourse on the cusp of the Trump era.
Addario’s portraits are beautiful glimpses of these diverse Americans in their work environments. Whether behind the wheel of a police car or a tractor, in the classroom or the cemetery, each finds its subject being expressively honest in the moment, touched by grief, joy and many points between. Twenty-one-year-old Olympic boxer Claressa Shields of Flint, Michigan, looks deeply into the reverent eyes of a young girl she speaks with at Gleason’s Gym. It’s easy to imagine that the Olympic athlete is a hero in the blighted Flint community. Red Tremmel, assistant professor at Tulane University and the only openly transgender faculty in New Orleans, is photographed in the solitude of his home. From the catalog for the show, Red is quoted: “For me, there’s the work you do to pay the bills and then there’s the work you do to be in connection to other humans on the planet.” While not professing at Tulane, Red DJs in his neighborhood bar and is writing a history of desire in New Orleans.
The work we do is tied to how we define and fit ourselves into the world. As economies fluctuate and fissures open in political landscapes, people lose ground and become demoralized by the struggle to simply survive rather than live, to be seen as individuals. In these twenty-four people, we can see what is best about the American spirit: its ingenuity and creativity, its desire to connect and aspire, and its willingness to work to make this place a little better with each passing day, with each conversation and connection with our fellow humans. (Damien James)
Through January 30, 2017 at the Harold Washington Library, 400 South State