issue 239 - January 1993
Pictures of work are hard to find. David Ransom detects a blind spot
in our view of working life and imagines what might lie behind it.
I reckon I've worked pretty hard all my life. Never harder, in fact, than when I was out of a job. To fend off anxiety, frustration and questions about what I was doing I told my friends I was writing a novel. Then, because they kept asking me what it was about, I had to start writing it. I began to work frantically, looking after my small daughter at the same time. The novel helped me to stay sane, I think, but I'm glad it never got published.
My first 'proper job' was in a bank in Montevideo, Uruguay, and it was hard in a rather different way. It was really very boring indeed. We spent a great deal of time looking for extremely small amounts of money - which we never found - in huge haystacks of paper. I passed an entire week in the vaults counting hundreds of thousands of old and virtually worthless banknotes, suffocated by the smell of stale humanity that seeps from old money. I cannot picture this scene - only recall the smell.
This started me thinking about images and work. Pictures of people working are strangely scarce. A couple of weeks ago I decided to conduct a brief, completely unscientific experiment. I went to London's National Gallery in search of paintings of people working. I climbed the posh mockpalatial staircase and strolled past the religious icons of the Renaissance centuries, on through the formal landscapes and portraits of the industrial era and off into the abstractions of today. I found just six pictures out of the hundreds on exhibition in which anyone was doing any work; and they included Woman Scraping Parsnips by Nicholas Maes (1655) and Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas (1879).
It's not that such pictures don't exist. I can think of several great paintings about work, by van Gogh for example. But for one reason or another they are not on display in the National Gallery. This is odd for a collection of the most treasured images of a European culture obsessed with work.
So I went home to look more carefully at the TV. There was someone tinkering with a car in a soap opera; a physiotherapist tending a wretched child in an 'asylum' on the Greek island of Leros. But for the most part I watched a procession of personalities, performers and players whose work it is to divert our minds from work.
Next morning I thumbed through the daily newspaper. Bill Clinton. Refugees in Bosnia. Football. Fashion. Cartoons. Much the same result. That evening I took out my own photo albums. Holidays. Friends. Family. Not a single snapshot in it of me, or anyone I know, doing anything even remotely resembling our normal work.
There used to be a large, red, Russian poster in the 'Socialist Realist' tradition on my wall at home. At least this tradition used to show an interest in somewhat muscle-bound kinds of labour. But it was obliged to portray work as invariably heroic. It became, you might argue, even less convincing on the subject than Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando.
I completed my little survey feeling a bit more enlightened about European art, but not about work. I began to sense what you might call an unnatural vacuum - which nothing seems anxious to fill - in the visual imagery I am used to and therefore, perhaps, in the way I have come to see work.
Why do pictures matter? Visual images are incredibly powerful. The great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, refuses to sell the film rights to his best-known book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, because a film would simply wipe out the images his readers have made for themselves of the strange tales he tells. It would be nice to think that all of us create our own images of work in the same way, but work is definitely not fiction.
Through TV and films, visual images have long since supplanted the written and spoken word as the common currency of social communication, the 'culture' we absorb to form so many of our attitudes, feelings and beliefs. Without social communication, without images of the work we do reflected in what we see, how are we to understand its significance?
Perhaps work is a fixed requirement that's best not thought about too hard because there's nothing much we can do about it anyway. But it is, after all, what we spend the better part of our waking hours doing, whether inside or outside the home, paid or unpaid. Our well-being and that of everyone we care for ultimately depends upon it. We invest in it our fondest hopes and our worst fears - not least our fear of being without it.
Unemployment and underemployment stalk the world today with increasing self-confidence. The tedium of so much of the work that has to be done may seem like a minor irritation in comparison with the wrecked lives and misery left behind by poverty. Unemployment polices the insane tyranny of work that drives people to toil harder and do more of it - thereby helping to create yet more unemployment.
Work influences our lives in less obvious ways, too. A couple of years ago I edited an issue of the NI on mental illness. I came rather belatedly to see that the casual cruelties, ruthless calculations and studied indifference to feelings that work often demands of us help to drive us crazy. Quite as much, in fact, as the more personal, sexual or familial histories we're used to thinking of as the natural home of human emotions.
At work the deepest human emotions get translated into the language of productivity. We rely on industrial psychology, management training or Japanese working practices to see us through; to reconcile us, more often than not, with what we are required to believe is the benevolent and majestic operation of market forces.
But I have just about as much chance of reconciling myself with market forces as I had of reconciling the books of the bank in Montevideo. I find it bleak and strange, this separation between work and visual images. I think it is perverse and sad that the most powerful means of communication we have should avert its gaze so firmly from such a significant part of our lives.
One reason why it does so is not hard to find. Josef Herman, whose drawings appear elsewhere in this magazine (in articles Maids and madams & The wages of work) made work the central theme of his art. In so doing he committed a form of commercial suicide. Before you decide to create an image you have to ask yourself who will buy it. There are not many customers for pictures about work - so not many pictures about it are ever produced. Ask yourself why not and you begin a critique of the society you live in. There's nothing particularly new or shocking about images being dominated by the 'market' for them. The problem preoccupied the apprentices of Renaissance Italy or the hacks of 'Socialist Realism' just as much as it does the art students of today.
Another reason comes closer to home. Desks, chairs, computer screens and operators in rectangular, air-conditioned, artificially-lighted office 'environments' are hardly the stuff of striking visual images. The great office picture has, so far as I know, still to be taken. I've spent more of my time working in offices than I care to admit. It's not that the work I do now is tedious. Far from it. But I don't know, for example, what the space is I'm looking into while I work at the computer writing this. Hours pass by in some other dimension. Where do they go to? Inside an office the 'real world' is forever 'out there'.
Sometimes, however, it decides to invade.
One day a squad of armed soldiers marched into that bank in Montevideo. A colonel occupied 'the manager's office. We were 'militarized', made members ex officio of the Uruguayan armed forces, liable to arrest and punishment as deserters if we didn't work. The bank clerks had gone out on strike, driven out by intransigent employers and wages halved by inflation. They were hauled back to their desks by soldiers, then frog-marched off to military barracks for 'retraining'.
My memory is still rich with images of these events, and I'm tempted to think this is only because normal work had stopped altogether. On reflection I realize that the boredom I felt in the bank related to the fact that I was creating absolutely nothing. I have what feels like an instinct to make things, to create something that was not there before. It could be growing plants or vegetables, making meals or babies, writing articles, knocking together two pieces of wood - whatever it is, some tangible product of my daily existence is important to me, an essential source of satisfaction. Most people I know seem to feel something similar. At various times and in different jobs we may get more or less of this kind of satisfaction. But without it we are belittled. What we have come to call a consumer' society, defined by what it consumes rather than what it creates, produces deep veins of dissatisfaction.
This is, I think, the essential link between all forms of work, manual or otherwise. Sebastiao Salgado, whose stunning photographs have inspired much of this magazine, believes that by looking at manual labour he is documenting a vanishing world. He is doing so with an art - black-and-white still photography - that could be vanishing too.
All of this may well be true. Some of it - an end to the punishing routines of manual labour - may even be desirable. But none of it diminishes the impact of Salgado's images, the pleasure as well as the pain of creative work, the importance of the pictures themselves as a record of what it means to remain human in a changing world.
See them for yourself. Allow them to say to you what they will. They are that rare thing - great images of work that stay with you and make understanding more possible.
This special report appeared in the hard work: featuring sebastiao salgado photographs issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.