October 16, 2018 / Scott Schneider

A Life’s Work: The Power of Photography

In 1996, the AIHA Social Concerns Committee sponsored a photography exhibit at AIHce in Washington, D.C. It was called The Quiet Sickness, and it featured the photography of Earl Dotter, a local photographer who had spent nearly 30 years photographing workers on the job and the hazards they faced.

Copies of Life’s Work–A 50 Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the U.S.A. can be ordered from the AIHA Store. Dotter and his work have been featured twice in The Synergist. An article about the exhibit Holding Mother Earth Sacred and a short interview with Dotter appeared in the October 2010 issue. The AIHA 75th anniversary issue (PDF) in September 2014 included several of Dotter’s photographs.

Honoring the World of Work

Dotter had started his career photographing miners for the United Mine Workers’ Journal. He went on to photograph hospital workers, construction workers, poultry workers, migrant farm workers, and many others. His photographs were compelling. At AIHce, many people bought copies to hang in their offices to remind themselves why they became industrial hygienists. Two years later, the exhibit was translated into a book by the same name published by AIHA Press. The SCC also brought Earl’s photographs to AIHce 2010 in Denver for an exhibit on Native Americans called Holding Mother Earth Sacred.

Twenty years had passed since the publication of The Quiet Sickness. Dotter’s photography had evolved from black and white to color and from film to digital. His repertoire had expanded. He had several major award-winning exhibits, including The Price of Fish on fishermen in the Northeast; Badges, on the history of asbestos disease in the U.S., which features actual name badges of workers who worked in the asbestos industries in the 1930s and 1940s; and photographs of workers doing cleanup at the World Trade Center after 9/11. Dotter also generously provided some of his photographs for a special supplement to The Synergist in September 2014 that commemorated AIHA’s 75th anniversary.

Over the years, Dotter had received many honors, including the American Public Health Association’s Alice Hamilton Award in 2001, which commemorated Dotter’s lifetime of service to occupational health and safety. In 2008, AIHA had named him an honorary member. It was time to publish a second book of his work.

A Career Retrospective

In September 2018, AIHA Press published Dotter’s comprehensive Life’s Work–A 50 Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the U.S.A. Much larger than A Quiet Sickness, Life’s Workfeatures photographs from more than a dozen exhibits over the course of Dotter’s career as well as other major projects. Each chapter focuses on one exhibit and includes a short essay from a major figure in occupational safety and health who helped Dotter with that project. The book includes an introductory essay by Howard Berkes of National Public Radio and a closing autobiographical piece by Dotter reflecting on his career.

The book launch was held at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., on September 13. Larry Sloan, AIHA’s CEO, kicked it off by expressing his appreciation of Dotter’s work and AIHA’s pride in having the honor of publishing this new book as well as his first book. The event continued with a dialogue between Dotter and Peg Seminario, director of Occupational Safety and Health for the AFL-CIO, about his work and career. The room was packed. Everyone was excited to obtain the book. It was a testament to the power of Dotter’s work that so many people turned out for this event.

The book is an amazing collection of powerful photographs and fascinating reflective essays. It spans the history of worker safety and health since the creation of OSHA and documents many of the struggles workers have faced. Dotter’s photographs not only remind us why we joined this profession; they help us accomplish our goal by honoring the men and women whose health it is our responsibility to protect, by movingly documenting instances where health and safety regulations have failed workers, and ultimately by motivating action.

Scott Schneider

Scott Schneider, CIH, FAIHA, recently retired as director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America.


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