Documenting Pittsburgh's Labor Culture

Worker with United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America flag – Pittsburgh, PA

“There are no saviors, we are our own saviors. We have the capacity to save ourselves. Not individually no, but we have the capacity to band together, work together and understand that in order to create a better world, we need to create a world in where we all live better. If we create a world where only some live better, we haven’t created a better world.” – Mel Packer, Pittsburgh Activist & Community Organizer

When it comes to my work as a social documentary photographer, the image is secondary. Sure, I want my pictures to be clear and dynamic, but I need to fill the frame with interesting subjects in order to accomplish this. That’s why the experience comes first. Without it, I’m merely taking pictures.

Stephen Pellegrino, working class artist & musician – Homestead, PA

I count my involvement within the labor community in Pittsburgh to be a testament to this philosophy. Citizens of Industry, my first long term documentary project on labor culture and worker solidarity, has afforded me the opportunity to meet people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The first installment of the project, Steel City Solidarity, uses photo documentation, interviews and various forms of multimedia to chronicle the state of labor and worker solidarity in the city of bridges. The current social and political climate of inequality has manifested itself into a complex struggle at the grassroots level; creating a strong base of community activism using alternative methods of cultivating advocacy and awareness. Pittsburgh has one of the strongest histories of unionism and civil involvement in the United States, and allows for an in-depth look at the inner workings of this ever-evolving movement.

Documenting labor culture has been a long tradition in the photographic community. Early photographers such as Otto Hagel, Milton Rogovin and Charles Rivers understood the importance of chronicling the strife of workers; not only as a historical document, but with an eye for artistic composition. Unlike straight journalism, documentary work allows for a more personal storytelling approach.

May Day March for Immigration Reform – Pittsburgh, PA

For the past year and a half, the work has allowed me to examine the industrial landscape of Pittsburgh and become acquainted with those who inhabit it. I’ve explored the roots of the region’s steel history through the ruins of its iron ore plants, and examined the essence of protest and advocacy by participating in area rallies and conversing with community leaders. I have talked with individuals who have lost their jobs by trying to unionize, and have learned about the cultural spirit of labor through the region’s artists and musicians. While these experiences have advanced my project, they have also influenced my own resolve. My confidence in the labor movement is stronger than ever.

With the first installment of Citizens of Industry coming to a close, the project will continue to grow as a multipart examination of worker culture throughout the rust belt region. It is the desire of all artists for their efforts to endure, and it is my hope that the work will not only serve as an educational piece, but as a creative narrative into the heart of the working class. Time will only tell.

– Andy Prisbylla

Visit Citizens of Industry at www.citizensofindustry.org.

Connect with the project on Facebook and Flickr.

Contact the photographer at www.andyp.org.

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Filed under Art, Editorial, Featured, Headline, Labor, regionalism

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