“A Calling, Not a Job” Project&’s Working in America

Photos by Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of Chicago Public Library. Photos by Lynsey Addario. Courtesy of Chicago Public Library. Chicago icon and national treasure Studs Terkel made a career out of chronicling the stories of others. A new art exhibit, opening September 14th at the Harold Washington Library, is very much concerned with the careers of others. Working in America, created by Project&, features 24 photographic profiles of working people drawn from a wide swath of America, along with written summaries of their trials and tribulations; hopes and dreams. These 24 individuals, photographed by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Lynsey Addario, are intimately spotlighted. Ranging from a retired police deputy to a body piercing artist (and plenty in-between) each display presents its subject in a unique way. Designed by Jeanne Gang, each subject is housed within an easily transportable pseudo-steamer trunk. This is utilitarian choice as the exhibit will travel the country, but it's also a deliberate statement. Inspired by Terkel's 1974 book Working, the exhibit is purposefully minimalist and austere. This feels appropriate given that a number of participants make their living in less than glamorous occupations. There's not a gold plated name plaque or suit adorned security guard shushing attendees in sight. The placement of the exhibit in one of the most public buildings in Chicago gives Working in America a suitably egalitarian feel, not unlike something pulled from the New Deal's Federal Art Project. As I spoke with curator Jane M. Saks, it became clear that Terkel's work is just as relevant today as it was over four decades ago. Work has always been tied up in American identity. Whether this is national myth, deep rooted capitalism, or a holdover of the Puritans' suspicion of idleness, work has always defined this country's ethos. We call it "The American Dream": work hard and you can have it all. Live to work, essentially. But what is work? Is it the same as a job? What do we work for, exactly? Working in America doesn't simply document the work people do. It documents what people work for. A key quote of Terkel's is spotlighted in the exhibit's literature: "It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying." The warmth and humanity Terkel brought to his subjects, whether in print or on his radio show, is ample throughout Working in America. Given the disruptions in the economy over the past years, where it's harder and harder to make a decent living, Working in America showcases that living is very much why we work, not the other way around. Working in America is on display at the Harold Washington Library Center (3rd Floor North) from September 14th until January 30th.
Picture of the author
James Orbesen

James Orbesen is a writer and professor living in Chicago. His first book on the comics of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is forthcoming from Sequart. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Guernica, Salon, Jacobin, Chicago Review of Books, PopMatters, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.