ILR School

Laid Off, Shut Down: a Photo Essay

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[Excerpt] In the summer of 1983, four other photographers and I set out to document laid-off workers in different areas, mainly in that vast and loosely termed region called the Midwest. We were all part of a group project funded by the Duke Center for Documentary Photography. As one might guess, unemployment is a difficult subject to portray visually — we found no ravaged battlegrounds, no gaping wounds, almost no outward signs of suffering which immediately catch the stranger's eye. Yet there is ongoing devastation in the still depressed pockets of places like Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and Butte. Theirs has become a silent struggle, not only because most of the national media has deserted their hardships in favor of stories which report an overall economy on the upswing, but also because laid-off workers continue to lead quiet, desperate lives surrounded by confusion and new senses of self-doubt. Of course, the prevailing hope is that jobs and the old days will somehow return, that the mills will soon fire up again; but the reality is that many will be worse off this winter than ever before as unemployment benefits end and high heating bills start again. While in Youngstown, I tried to focus on individuals, their families, - and their homes rather than on soup lines or unemployment offices. In the process, I began to understand why it is usually too costly for them to relocate, why proposed retraining does not always provide viable alternatives, and why remaining in their communities is such a deep-seated emotion. I saw that laid-off workers are a population caught in the middle, in a cruel dichotomy which no longer permits their ingrained middle-class values to quite merge with a middle-class lifestyle. Many carry on a fapade of their lives before unemployment until they can no longer afford to make the house payments, bring home nourishing food, and clothe growing children. One worker expressed to me his worry that he and others like him were no longer accounted for in our society. "You have to tell somebody what's going on here," he said to me. "I'm afraid that they're trying to forget about all of us who aren't a part of their so-called 'recovery' You have to tell somebody who can do something about it."

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Labor Research Review

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Vol. 1, Num. 5



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labor movement; layoffs; photography; unemployment


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Government Document




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