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ARTLAB TALKS WITH ENID CROW

HAPPY WORKERS

In ArtLAB's second interview with Enid Crow, the artist discusses the impetus and meaning behind her photographic series Happy Workers.

ArtLAB: Tell me about the Happy Workers series. Where did the idea for the project come from?

Enid Crow: The Happy Workers series is a visual response to the work of journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Moyers, and Studs Terkel who are famous for documenting the lives of ordinary working Americans. Although I admire the success of these journalists, I find their myopic focus on problems like low wages and poor benefits, the decline of union membership, and increasing disposability of white collar workers extremely depressing and uninspiring. As a journalist myself, my goal with the Happy Workers project was to document and photograph workers who actually appreciate the fact that they have a job in this tough economy. I asked each worker to give me one brief and uplifting quote about his or her job--no whining allowed. I was thrilled with the workers I was able to capture in uniform: a Waffle House waitress, a UPS delivery man, a mail carrier, a secretary, a Hooters Girl, and more. I mean, half these folks are unemployed now!

ArtLAB: But aren't these actually self portraits?

Crow: Well, yes, they are self portraits. Regrettably, most of the real workers I initially encountered seemed to think that, because I am a journalist, I actually wanted them to talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. They were telling me about things like the difficulty getting time off to take care of a sick family member, the diminution of investments in their 401(k) plans, working longer hours for less pay just to keep their jobs, blatant acts of homophobia and sexism, the fact that they are poor even though they work full time--I got that a lot from the fast food workers. I mean, maybe the real problem is that these people never learned they need a positive attitude to get ahead! And, as luck would have it, the only workers willing to play along and give me a short, peppy sound byte about their jobs weren't very photogenic. Actually one worker, a proprietress of a lemonade stand, was adorable, but her mother was not willing to sign the consent form.

So I decided to buy various discarded work uniforms on eBay (thank God for all these layoffs!) and take photographs of myself wearing the uniforms near the corresponding businesses.

ArtLAB: I find the way your series examines identity and subjectivity really interesting: The fact that all of the workers are you reveals the empty nature of all worker identities. And through drag and artifice, you reveal what most of us mistake for reality at the expense of our freedom: the ideologies that bring us into being as one or another kind of worker/subject.

Crow: The great sage Dr. Wayne W. Dyer queried: If you think you are what you do then what are you when you don't?

ArtLAB: What do you think he means by that?

Crow: That if your mother said, "You are what you eat," you were probably raised by a liar. (Laughter.) Seriously, I got the name for this project from a quote from the late 19th century journalist Frank Crane. Crane, unlike the contemporary liberal media, actually glorified working. He called the factory "a sermon in steel and glass," a "Temple of Work" in which machinery rather than an organ provided the music and the choir "was the glad laughter of happy workers." Obviously, most employers appreciate how important the happy worker choir is to their temples because they provide so many fabulous benefits like employee-of-the-month awards and product discounts. There are a lot of fast food workers who would not be able to afford to eat if McDonald's and Arby's didn't offer such generous discounts.

Many of the uplifting quotes that appear below the photographs are paraphrased from employer Web sites. You can tell that the employees are truly happy from these candid quotes. For example, in my portrait of an Orkin Pest Control employee, Dan says, "I'm empowered to make decisions and encouraged to be creative." That's almost exactly what an actual worker said. Chuck, a McDonald's cashier notes, "The career opportunities are phenomenal." I'm not making this stuff up. Real employees said things just like this. Just check the employer Web sites.

ArtLAB: Some of your so-called "uplifting" quotes are actually little troubling, even sinister. For example, the Hooters Girl says, "I do not find my work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome."

Crow: Tammy's quote is inspired by the Hooters employment agreement. I mean, Hooters cares so much about its Girls that before it even allows a Girl to slip on a tank top and short shorts, it makes sure that the Girl feels absolutely comfortable about wearing her uniform and her work environment. I don't see anything sinister about that. It's sort of like Hooters is giving its Girls a little pep rally!

ArtLAB: Or protecting itself from a lawsuit. How do you answer your critics who say that this is "irresponsible reporting," "one-sided," and that you "fail to conceal your obvious corporate bias."

Crow: Look, as more and more reporters from distinguished newspapers like The New York Times invent sources in order to support their articles, I think that you are going to see a lot of photojournalists dressing up and posing as the subject. After all, it's not every day you get a shot like "Execution of a Viet Cong Guerilla" or a photo of an airplane landing in the Hudson. By using myself to document other people's lives, I'm breaking new ground. Also, as the public becomes more hungry for sound bytes instead of long articles and as advertisers become more reluctant to be associated with ugly news stories, I think that you're going to get more short, one-quote articles. How can anyone possibly present all the sides in so few words?

ArtLAB: In that case, in one word or less, can you summarize what you hope to contribute to the ongoing discussion about the American workplace with this body of work?

Crow: Absolutely!

 

March 22, 2009

 

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