America at Work
A photographer’s cross-country quest to learn why Americans do what they do
A little over two months ago, I lost my job. It was pretty standard stuff. A few of us got the soft-spoken news about a reorganization. HR was ready with the package. There were some long faces, lots of paperwork, a goodbye lunch. I turned in my key card and company phone and drove to the beach. It was raining, and I was craving fish and chips.
As the news sank in, I panicked. It was just a few weeks before my 50th birthday and the first time I’d been unemployed since I was 13.
In 1971, Studs Terkel published a book called Working. In fact, because it was 1971, it was actually called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. It was required reading in my household, and it had a profound effect on me. It introduced me to the notion that there are countless ways to make a living and taught me about how people’s identities get wrapped up in what they do. I became one of the people in his book. I had a life that revolved around my work.
That’s why, standing in the rain that day, I was overwhelmed with the question of who I was without the scaffolding of my career. As a creative director, my work and ideas have always relied on other people. So, without anyone to give me an assignment, I decided to create one: I was going to talk with as many working people as I could. I was going to photograph them. And I was going to hear their stories.
After the recession in 2007, everything was about jobs. We marked our health as a country through economic updates. And by most accounts, we have rebounded, with historic lows in unemployment. The unemployment rate ballooned to 10.2 percent in 2009 and currently hovers around 4 percent, which translates to about 8.5 million more people with jobs today than in 2009. But the focus on numbers has neglected to consider how people feel about their jobs.
Remember, the original subtitle of Terkel’s book was People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Statistics tell only half the story. Employment statistics tell us about getting a job, but they don’t tell us what it’s like having a job.
I have a general sense that people’s attitudes toward work have changed since 1971, but I’ve had my head down for so long that I’m not entirely sure what people feel anymore. So I decided to go and find out.
I will by no means be the first photojournalist seeking to understand America with only a car, a curious mind, and a lens. Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon—the list of those who’ve made this journey is almost paralyzingly grand.
Harnessing these artists as an inspirational force, I’m grabbing my camera and heading out in search of the truth.