While the idea for this book came from many sources of inspiration and individuals, it all began on a 1500-foot pier at the Newport News Naval Shipyard in Virginia. It was there in 1987 while serving as a Naval Photojournalist aboard the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower that I learned how to make pictures.
The ship was in dry dock and every day, my then mentor, Warrant Officer Patrick Wilkerson would task me with photographing the cacophony of work being done to the ship. The activity was staggering - a labyrinth of wires, cranes, crates pulleys and machines - surrounded by a blur of electricians, welders, engineers and seamen hauling cargo onto the thousand-foot behemoth. I may have not have realized it at the time, but Officer Wilkerson’s daily assignments were forming the basis of how I wanted to capture people in images, I wanted to photograph them doing their jobs.
Another vital component of this project came not from photography, but from my fascination with handwriting, When I joined the Navy in 1986 my Mom, who was an avid diarist, presented me with a simple journal and a black metal pen I began writing my journal in February of 1987 and have not missed a day in over thirty years, compiling over 80 volumes containing nearly 20 million words.
A favorite book of mine has also been instrumental in forming the basis for this work. In 1974 the noted oral historian and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel wrote “Working- People Talk About What They Do All Day and Hoth They Feel About What They Do.” Later in my career as a photojournalist at daily newspapers in Connecticut and the New York Times, I would meet and photograph people who had seemingly stepped out of Stud’s Influential book - truck drivers, lawmakers, chefs, high school teachers, nurses, etc.
I carried a small journal in my camera bag and would ask my subjects to write a page or two about what they did, why they did it and how they felt about their work. I was always fascinated by what they did for a living. It was important to me to allow the subject to delver their thoughts via their own handwriting, rather than the typical technique of answering verbal questions.
One subject I photographed was very interested in the book. He was the Connecticut State Historian, Walter Woodward. After examining the small journal and reading a few of the entries, he smiled, looked up and said, “This is a great idea, but there’s one problem.” “What’s that Walter?” I asked. “These are great stories, but you’re a photographer. Where are the pictures of the people who wrote these pages.”
That was my ah-ha moment. The lightbulb went on.
The book you have now is the culmination and refinement of all the ideas, work and insightful inspiration of people like Studs Terkel, Sebastiao Salgado, Hiroji Kubota, Warrant Officer Wilkerson, and Walter Woodward.
Making photographs for this project is richly rewarding for me. I love the process of it. I explore peoples working lives by observing them for a day. Photographing people at work amplifies my knowledge of the world and the people in it. It’s fascinating to me to observe what it’s like to design a wedding dress, operate a crane, conduct an orchestra or put a perfect shine on a pair of shoes.
I cannot think of a better way to depict people in photographs than by photographing them while they perform their work. The process of making these images and collecting these writings has left me with the indelible notion that, for the most part, who we are is what we produce and what we do is who we are.
-Michael J. Fiedler