Introducing his groundbreaking 1974 best-seller Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do, iconic Chicago author, radio personality, performer, historian and activist Louis "Studs" Terkel wrote, "To earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow has always been the lot of mankind. No matter how demeaning the task, no matter how it dulls the senses and breaks the spirit, one must work. Or Else."
"Ought not there be an increment, earned though not yet received, from one's daily workan acknowledgement of man's being?" Terkel wondered.
In each of the working lives Terkel went on to, often intimately, detail, including a farmer, a sex worker, a washroom attendant, a dentist, a musician and an actor, he set out to explore that question and what he called the "mystique of work."
"Perhaps it is time the 'work ethic' was redefined and its idea reclaimed from the banal men who invoke it," Terkel stated. "Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningfulnot just as the source of a buckyou don't have to worry about finding enough jobs."
Terkel's collage of the hopes, needs, raw emotions and the search to the answer to the conundrum of happiness that lies at the basic core of humanity is timeless.
For 42 years, it has inspired people to ask questions about their own working lives and was the basis for the hit Broadway musical Working.
Beginning Sept. 14 at the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago, one of the city's most innovative and prolific new arts and social justice organizations Project&, will open an extraordinary multimedia exhibit that takes the fundamental questions of Terkel's book and, through a heightened intimacy of photography and storytelling, asks them of the 21st Century working American.
Project& is an organization which collaborates with artists of every discipline worldwide to "Create new models of cultural participation with social impact" through an absolute belief that "Art changes the world."
It is a belief through which Project& amplifies "artistic voices that risk, engage, investigate and inspire" when addressing "issues at the forefront of our time including race, justice, access and equity, identity, gender, cultures of violence, human rights and economic inequality."
It is within such essential dialogues that Project& founding president and artistic director Jane M. Saks says her organization seeks "new models of participation through culture."
The Working in America exhibit is beautifully aligned with that goal.
Collaborating with Project& in its creation is Lynsey Addario, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, MacArthur Fellowship recipient and author of It's What I Do: A Photographers Life of Love and War.
Also a MacArthur Fellow, award-winning and pioneering architect Jeanne Gang and the internationally acclaimed company she founded Studio Gangan 80 plus collective of "architects, designers and thinkers"collaborated on the exhibit's design.
In addition, Project& started significant dialogues about the initiative with the U.S. Department of Labor and forged partnerships with advocacy organizations and think tanks nationwide including the National Domestic Workers Alliance ( NDWA ), the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Access Living, Women Employed, the Center for American Progress and the Chicago-based Pride Action Tank ( on which Saks serves as an advisory board member. )
The voices that Working in America amplifies belong to 24 working Americans engaged in a wide range of professions including "Veterans, janitors, tech workers, farmers, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, elected officials and others."
Each of faces of the 24 subjects were presented in a photographic grid as a part of the exhibit's visual logo and promotional materials.
Addario not only captured an absolute reflection of the multicultural and beautifully diverse population of American workers but of humanity completely uncensored and without the airbrush applied by a mainstream, commercial attempt to synthetically replicate what Terkel called "the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people."
Some of the faces present a broad smile, as if they have solved the conundrum of happinessat least for the time being and to their satisfaction. A few even seem to have surpassed it. Yet there are others who make very little effort to mask profound sadness, or deep exhaustionthe dream more improbable than extraordinary.
There is clearly a story to each of their lots in life.
According to Project&, those stories are told "in raw and authentic terms."
Within them lies the exploration of "the relationships between the social, cultural, physical, and psychological realities of work that shape everyday life. Issues of work and economic equity anchor the major conflicts of our times, be they the widening wealth gap, access to education and training, the housing collapse, or the impact of the global economy on people's abilities to patch together jobs in order to earn a living."
Saks conceived and curated Working in America.
The idea for the exhibit was not borne simply from her knowledge of Terkel's work, but a deeply personal experience of the man himself.
Her father was friends with Terkel, and Saks would often join the two of them in drives around Chicago. From the backseat, she received an early education in civic engagement and the fight for social and political change.
"They taught me what this city was aboutthe good, the bad, the ugly and the inspiring, and the people that make it up," she told Windy City Times. "My parents always told me that 'you have to make a life and you have to make a living. One isn't more important than the other.' So you can't make lots of money and not care about contributing to bettering the world and you can't have a fabulous life and not be able to pay your rent."
Working in America also emerged from one of Saks' most deeply held beliefs.
"I don't think that there are enough people in our Democratic experiment who are able to participate in our society with equity and success," she said. "All the work that I do is focused on that. I was in a meeting in Washington, D.C. and we were having a conversation about economic inequality in America. I thought about what my work in arts and culture would look like in addressing that issue."
Grappling with the question, Saks went home and took her father's copy of Terkel's Working off her bookshelf.
Within its pages, she found her answer.
"So I decided to revisit it," she said. "The last 40 years has been a tumultuous time for our economy and for workers. We are at a really critical moment, especially with the upcoming election when many people are tackling the issues of work and economic and social equity."
Saks and Addario, a longtime close friend, began to cross America together collecting stories and photographs.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico they found Jamesa 30-year-old electrician and body piercing artist.
James loves his art with such a passion that he said it was his goal to have 100 percent of his body tattooed. ( He is 95 percent of the way there. )
James had the same artistic drive when it came to piercing. "I have always loved body piercing," he asserted. "I started in middle school, self-taught on my friends. They all kept coming back for more, so I decided this is one of the things I love to do."
He is also an electrical contractor in a business he co-owns with his father.
"We have to work in the heat, a lot of stress," he said, "the possibility of getting shocked or killed. This is a very dangerous job."
"James is saying 'I want to do what gives me confidence and is authentic to me,'" Saks said. "He is an incredible electrician who also thinks about the pride he has in his body and showing up visibly in the world. Living our lives is a creative process and our work is one of its major elements. We have to think about our work as just as influential as other things that shape us."
In Orlando, Florida they met professional escort Ava St. Clair.
"I love the fact that there are very few jobs where every single time you go to work, you know that you're making someone's life a little bit better, even if it's just for a little while, even if it's just for an hour," she said.
But Saks noted that "St. Clair works like many people: 'I go, I do what I do, I get paid, and I leave it there'."
However, she chose her profession in part because, as St. Clair explained, "Men feel so entitled to women."
"They're entitled to your time and they get mad if you don't want to give them your number or smile at them," St. Clair said. "So I felt like I was taking control and saying, 'You know what, you can have all of those things but you're going to pay me for them'."
Having gathered innumerable narratives and portraits, Saks curated 24 of thempeople aged 21 to 87 living and working in 17 states. They include a number of LGBTQ individuals.
Gang collaborated on the design of their narratives and Addario's photography into an exhibition that presented them and their professions in keeping with Project&'s highest standards of artistic excellence.
However, Saks was just as determined that Working in America should be experienced in a public, accessible and free space.
"I'm a huge Benjamin Franklin fan," she said. "He developed the library so that rich people weren't the only ones with access to knowledge. So I wanted it to take place in a library. It is designed in a way that is almost like steamer trunks. The trunks open up and people find an incredible exhibition inside. So no library can't take the exhibition because of staff limitations or they can't afford to present it."
Alongside the power of photography and the human narrative, Saks tapped into a third highly influential medium to form a part of the exhibit.
"There is a radio series," she said. "Working with the Studs Terkel Archives, I got unprecedented access to the field interviews that Studs did for the book. They have never been heard."
That will change thanks to another collaborationthis one between Saks and another close friend, Peabody Award-winning radio producer Joe Richman.
He is the founder and executive producer of Radio Diaries, which captures "extraordinary stories of ordinary life" and broadcasts them to a worldwide audience through National Public Radio ( NPR ), the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC ) and via the Radio Series Podcast.
"Working Then and Now" is co-produced by Saks/Project& and Richman/Radio Diaries and will air on NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition the week of Sept. 26
"For some of the series we found some of the people in Stud's book who are still alive," Saks said. "We revisited them. They heard their interviews for the first time and talked about their 40 years of working life. We also paired them with contemporary voices."
Working in America also offers an opportunity few, if any of its contemporaries can boastpeople can not only experience but become a part of it by sharing their own working stories — it's called Your Working Story.
Project& has put out a nationwide call for people to take a picture of themselves at work and caption it by answering two of Terkel's questions:
What does work mean to you?
What is one thing people don't know about your work?
The photo and the answers can either be emailed to Project& or posted on Instagram with the hashtag #WorkinginAmerica. People can also visit Working.org .
"I wanted people across the United States to be able to participate in this conversation," Saks asserted. "Even if the exhibition does not travel to their city, we now have an online, living community of narratives. Anyone can join in to this working, breathing conversation."
Saks believes these stories are essential to a conversation that is not limited to hushed whispers in museum. It is a global chorus that is as diverse in experience as it is unified in need.
"Recording and hearing our experiences really preserves the wisdom of humankind," she said. "It includes the breadth of our whole society and it adds audiences and oxygen to voices that are often left out or invisible."
It is an idea that is very much in keeping with the architecture of Terkel's original book.
Among the 1974 narratives he included was 37-year-old steel mill laborer named Mike Lefevre.
"It's hard to take pride in a bridge you're never gonna cross, in a door you're never gonna open," Lefevre told Terkel. "You're mass-producing things you never see end result of it. In a steel mill you don't see where nothing goes."
Saks and Addario met Roque Sanchez in Chicago, 40 years later. His story is a part of the exhibit.
Sanchez arrived in the U.S. as one of the invisiblea five-year-old undocumented immigrant along with his family. Sanchez's first job was in a mustard factory but his voice is one of gratitude and hope.
"Everyone wants to work towards something and that's why you see people get up every day," he told Saks and Addario. "You see people riding to work, working towards something and it's very, very special to be part of the whole thing."
However Saks also believes that Working in America also speaks to those who are not a part of the labor force.
"The idea is to show how people are creating their lives, how they are putting their lives together," Saks said. "There is one woman in the exhibition whose husband committed suicide after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. She talks about how much she loves her work because she is working with people dealing with suicide. It comes from this extreme tragedy in her life but she has found something that makes her understand what she is supposed to be doing in the world."
Saks added that, prior to her current position, the woman had been through a number of jobs that "just seemed like work."
Such a statement cuts to the heart of one of Terkel's most quoted arguments. "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread," he wrote, "for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."
"Why do we have to think about work in that way; where we are just doing a job?" Saks wondered. "There's a population that gets to say 'yes. I want to be fulfilled. I want to have work that really helps me grow, change and evolve as a human being and helps me understand more about the possibility of the world'. Then there's a much larger population that's just supposed to get a job and not even want those things. Can't we be a working world that is as large as our spirit, as large as our capacity rather than 'you'll never make a living at this'?"
"I understand the world through the pinholes of art and culture, asking myself question after question after question." Saks added, "How can we create opportunities for deeper experiences, and wider human participation? That's really the possibility I imagine: a world with equitable participation and human dignity as the measure of success. It's what I strive for every day."
Working in America runs Sept. 14, 2016 to Jan. 30, 2017, at the Harold Washington Library.
Opening night includes a panel discussion moderated by author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz and featuring Addario, director of the Domestic Workers Alliance Ai-jen Poo; Lucia McBath ( mother of slain youth Jordan Davis ); retired auto worker and union leader in Terkel's original book, current exhibit and radio series Gary Bryner; and Roque Sanchez and others from the exhibit.
For more information about Project&, visit projectand.org . For more information about Working in America, visit Working.org .
To share a story about Working in America, email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it on Instagram with the hashtag #WorkinginAmerica.