Images of a hidden America

A group of low-paid people in the US - many of them illegal immigrants - were given cameras and photography classes and asked to capture their lives. David Usborne reports
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The Independent US

They are not famous photographers. In fact, these are people that most Americans barely see from day to day, even though they may depend upon them in ways they don't often think about. But then that is the point of their shared new book.

Due out in shops across the United States this week, Unseen America offers highly unusual and often poignant glimpses of the ordinary lives of low-salaried workers in the US, the majority of whom are immigrants and often without legal papers.

The coffee-table volume with 200 pages of photographs in black and white is the result of a four-year-old project initiated by Bread and Roses, the cultural arm of the local branch in New York of the Service Employees International Union.

It began when Esther Cohen, the executive director, organised free photography classes for blue-collar workers across the country, many of whom had never taken a picture in their lives. Cameras, donated by supporters, were given to them and they were encouraged to capture images that represented their lives in America.

"The idea was to give voice to the many people in society who don't normally have the opportunity to express themselves," she said. "They were asked to express themselves from their perspectives and figure out ways for those perspectives to be seen." Some of the photographers are union members; many are not.

The classes, which lasted 12 weeks, attracted everyone from Polish asbestos removal crews to Filipino care workers, garment and restaurant workers from China, shop clerks, homeless men, migrant workers, janitors, doormen and students. Some pages of the book show images taken by Native Americans on a reservation in South Dakota.

By coincidence, the book's launch party was held last Monday at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on the same day that undocumented workers from across the country left their jobs for a day and marched to demand fair treatment as the US Congress ponders controversial new laws to deal with the immigrant population.

Some of the images and the short captions written by the photographers are an eloquent reminder of the main message projected by last Monday's marches: that the immigrants, documented or undocumented, work hard to stay in the United States. "We deserve to be treated as human beings," reads one caption, attached to a photograph of day labourers waiting beside a road in Long Island hoping for work.

Published in the US by Regan books, an imprint of Harper Collins, the first edition has a 15,000-copy print run.