Carol Quirke: Eyes on Labor

News Photography and America’s Working Class

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There certainly aren’t many analyses of photographs of workers’ movements around, and only a handful of those dealing with media representation of these movements exist in the USA. But now we have another: a detailed study of labour movements by Carol Quirke, who has analysed them based on photographs published in LIFE magazine. Her book focuses on the portraiture of American workers and their union struggles in the mid-20th century, emphasizing the important question of in what way the inner workings and organization of trade (or labour) unions were directly influenced by news photography of the movements sprouting all over North America.

The author is able to detect different meanings of documentary photographs from the vast archives covering a long period of time. In order to make them easier to understand, she uses a systematic approach to divide them into recognizable thematic parts. The reader will have no difficulty recognizing them as types of social categories present in the genre of documentary news photography. Quirke also tackles the pertinent question, oftentimes disregarded in analyses of today’s media discourse – namely, of the role of editors, photographers, journalists, and union and labour movement leaders in the selection of photographs to be published. By doing that, she reveals symbolic struggles in terms of the relative status, or significance, of the theme of labour movements as compared to other political topics in news reporting. In analysing the photographs, the author turns to archival sources of trade unions and various companies, newspapers, as well as the Library of Congress. Even though such sources usually do not allow direct reference to photographs, it is precisely archived material that, by offering an up-close insight, constructively supplements our understanding of the construction of various motifs, turning out a narrative of the rises and falls of the struggling working classes.

Through photographs of workers fighting to establish trade unions, the author is able to capture the contradictory view of them – celebrated as heroes on the one hand, and as passive awaiters of change on the other. She also takes issue with the status of women in photographs of labour movements, arguing that LIFE predominantly shows them as starlets, subordinate to their male counterparts. Another highlight is the discriminatory editorial policy towards workers of other races present in the protests, who were shunned by the photographers. These photographs of workers are deserving of special attention mostly due to their crucial role in creating the public opinion and their impact on the relationship between workers and their employers. The book presents a topic which has so far not been in the centre of research – that is, it shows the reader in what way work and workers have been represented through photography within the media discourse.

Carol Quirke: Eyes on Labor.

Oxford University Press, 2012
376 pages
89 photographs
ISBN 9780199768226

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