Jane M. Saks knows a lot of people. As a child, she knew Studs Terkel, who was a friend of her father’s. Now, as an adult, she’s the director of Project&, an arts organization that collaborates with artists to create new work with social impact. Two years ago, she was at a meeting to discuss income inequality, and she started thinking about Terkel’s great oral history Working, compiled almost exactly 40 years before. The economy had changed a great deal since then, and Saks thought it would be a great idea to do what Terkel had done and take a good look at the people behind the employment stats. “They’re the experts of our lives and stories,” she says. “Work locates someone publicly and privately.”
So she called up Lynsey Addario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer with whom she’d previously worked on a project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—photographing civilians who’d been displaced by the civil war—and invited her to travel across the U.S. to take photos of working people while Saks asked them the Terkel-ish questions “What do you do all day?” and “How do you feel about it?” They eventually settled on 24 subjects in 17 states. Some of the people Saks already knew. Others she actively sought out, like David Alatorre, a gig worker, a distinctly 21st-century profession. And some, like Gary Bryner, a retired General Motors worker and union leader, had appeared in Working.
Then she called up Brian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, and asked if the library would like to host an exhibition of Addario’s photographs. She liked the idea of the pictures on display in a space that was free and open to the public. “You come to the library for knowledge,” she says. “You find things you can’t expect.” As it happened, the library was in the middle of a five-year plan to expand its mission to be a citywide community space for people to learn and discover new things. The Harold Washington Library brings in 1.4 million visitors every year, the same as the Art Institute. “Project& hit a sweet spot,” Bannon says. “When Jane calls, you take note.”
The exhibition, now set up on the third floor of the Harold Washington Library near the former circulation desk, has three components. The first is Addario’s portraits, accompanied by a thick catalog that contains more information about the subjects. (The displays, which turn into trunks so the exhibit can be easily moved, were designed by Jeanne Gang, another person Saks knows.) The second is an online platform where visitors can add their own working stories. And the last is archival recordings of Terkel’s interviews, which will be broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Saks was interested to see how the subjects defined themselves in terms of work. “Every person in the exhibition offered their stories with generosity and authenticity in ways that surprised me,” she says.
Lucia McBath’s father was an NAACP leader who always told her, “The struggle is more important.” Growing up, she resented how he put his work above his family. Then her own son was shot to death—now she spends most of her time traveling and speaking out against gun violence, and she understands what her father meant.
Most of the subjects in the exhibition do work that reflects Project&’s mission to support social change. Richard Berry, the mayor of Albuquerque, hires homeless people to do municipal jobs. Bianca Sanchez organized her fellow domestic workers into a cooperative. Salman Khan inadvertently began Khan Academy, his open-source educational nonprofit, by making videos for his cousins in Bangladesh to help them with physics. Roque Sanchez (no relation to Bianca) is an undocumented immigrant who was homeless for several years before the DREAM Act helped him get a job as a custodian and go to college.
Saks and Addario chose to display two photos of most of the subjects: one on the job and one at home, printed slightly larger-than-life. The pictures are laminated, not framed, so visitors don’t have to worry about getting too close.
One of the subjects, artist Riva Lehrer, happened to be at the library doing research while Saks was doing a walk-through of the exhibition. This was the first time Lehrer had seen the two photos—one of her working on a portrait in her studio, the other of her lounging on a couch at the end of the day. “Wow,” she said. “I’m always nervous to see pictures of myself, but as far as pictures of me go, I’m not going to pass out.” She walked along with Saks through the rest of the photos. “These are placing people in the theater of their own lives.”
Saks is excited about the participatory and audio components of the exhibition. “I was always a sensitive kid,” she says. “I didn’t know how to separate myself from the world. I see connections. People say, ‘No one’s ever asked me about how I feel about my work.’ But we all have a relationship to work.”
“Working America” opens at 6 PM this evening with a panel discussion at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State, 312-747-4300, chipublib.org, free.