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Arts & Culture

A Photographic ‘Life’s Work’

School of Public Health Hosts Exhibit Showcasing Workers’ Struggles and Triumphs

By Kelly Blake

photo exhibit at School of Public Health

Highlights of photojournalist Earl Dotter's half century spent chronicling the lives of workers and the labor movement is on display at the School of Public Health.

Photo by Kalin Dodson

Feeling undervalued and overworked, many Americans are radically rethinking work, quitting jobs in record numbers or striking for better labor conditions amid the stresses brought by the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 50 years after President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) into law, work in the 21st century remains hazardous; according to an AFL-CIO report this year, more than 275 U.S. workers still die from hazardous working conditions each day.

Photojournalist Earl Dotter has dedicated his life to revealing how American workers contend with such conditions, and to advocating for safer workplaces. “Life’s Work: A Fifty-Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the U.S.A,” an exhibition of Dotter’s photos, is on display through Dec. 21 in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health Building.

This Friday, Dotter will appear with a panel of occupational health experts, including School of Public Health Dean Boris Lushniak, to discuss the historical issues raised by the exhibit and the contemporary urgency and social value of the field of occupational health.

“I was determined to become what I called a ‘socially useful’ photographer,” Dotter said of his start in photography in 1968 while a graphic design student at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Dotter documented the anxiety and grief of people in his New York neighborhood.

Later that year, he was deeply moved by the Farmington mine disaster in which 78 West Virginia coal miners were killed by a methane gas explosion, a tragedy that catalyzed many legislative efforts to protect workers, including the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. The creation of OSHA soon followed, and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed a year later.

After graduation, Dotter joined the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program to avoid the Vietnam draft. With VISTA, he worked with communities in Tennesee’s Appalachian Mountains, where he “rubbed shoulders,” he said, with coal miners, many of whom were suffering from black lung disease. The experience helped him tap into the point of view of people aspiring to safer workplaces and better lives.

“I realized that I could apply my photographic skills in what was then this nation’s most dangerous occupation,” Dotter recalled. “One miner died at least every other day at that time.”

Among the exhibit’s images from this era of Dotter’s career are intimate portraits of sick coal miners displaying the dozens of medications they depended on and bed-ridden black lung victims.

Dotter worked through labor movement organizations to shed light on other workers’ plights, putting a human face on cotton mill workers, meatpackers, farmworkers, commercial fishers, firefighters, responders at Ground Zero on 9/11, health care workers and many more.

The stories his images tell have energized occupational health and labor advocates and led to important protections over several decades, frequently challenging the status quo.

“His photographs have long been threatening to people in power,” said Dr. Don Milton, professor of applied environmental health in the School of Public Health. “In 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s OSHA director was to ordered to recall 50,000 copies of a government pamphlet because of the powerful image on the cover, a photograph taken by Earl Dotter, showing a cotton mill worker emaciated from the effects of brown lung disease caused by breathing cotton dust every day at work.”

The agency reprinted the brochure without any photographs.

In 1999, Dotter became a Visiting Scholar in the Occupational and Environmental Health Program with the Harvard University School of Public Health, a position he holds to this day. It has provided the support to document injuries and illnesses of commercial fishermen and migrant farm workers, among others. (Organizing efforts led by United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez are among the photos on display.)

“I perceive my photography as a vehicle to stop someone who might ordinarily pass a worker by, and to spark concern and thought about our world of work,” Dotter said. “The toll of fatalities and injuries in workplaces is still far higher than it should be. If there is a reason for me doing what I do, it is to rectify that.”

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School of Public Health

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