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In the photography exhibition Working America, artist Sam Comen presents American immigrants and first-generation Americans at work in the small, skilled trades as icons of the American experience. The subjects share stories of economic independence and struggle, belonging and exclusion, faith and fear, and service to both community and family.
A variety of themes are explored in the portraits and accompanying interviews, including the dignity of work, inequity among immigrant nationalities, the political relevance of labor migrants, the intergenerational legacies of inherited skills, and the learning of new skills to adapt to the new land of opportunity; and the relationship between a nation’s identity and the identities of the individuals who comprise that nation.
This body of work has particular relevance today in a political landscape where anti-immigrant and pro-worker sentiments figure prominently. Comen has revisited some of his portrait subjects more recently, to update their stories in the extraordinary context of the global pandemic and subsequently devastating economic hardship, adding new dimensions and timeliness to the project.
Working America is a meditation on American belonging and American becoming, it poetically acknowledges the lives and contributions of working men and women make as a part of our country and our collective experience.