A bridge between worlds: Drawing people together through art

People surprised me. My photographic portraits of the American working class are being shown this fall at Redeemer West Side’s Gallery at W83, which hosts collections of fine art in the gallery space. The show was titled “Noble Work,” and runs from September 19 to November 6. But it took me years to create the images that were shown there, and I learned a great deal along the way.

I grew up living a dual life, caught between classes. My summers were spent hanging around in a welding shop in my 3,000 person hometown in rural south Texas. During the school year, I would hang out with my private school friends in the mini-mansions of suburbia, surrounded by the children of surgeons and NBA players.

I did not realize until much later in life that my unique childhood, caught between two very different cultures, had enabled me to be both adaptable and a natural connector: a bridge between different worlds. That is true of my photographic subject matter as well. I am drawn to projects that aim to draw people together.

The photographic series “Noble Work” addresses the American class divide by bringing the working class into focus. It recognizes those in working-class positions across the United States, showing their inherent worth, as both humans and workers.

I photographed my subjects on a large-format view camera that was built around 1950 and captures images on 4x5” sheets of film. The process of taking each image is time-consuming and expensive. The camera is also not something you typically see, so it causes the subject to be more stately and composed when posing for the photo. I intentionally photographed my subjects in this way to connect the reality of their everyday work environment to the formality and grandeur of 18th-century paintings and through the process, honor the subject and their work.

I enjoyed getting to know some of my subjects, hearing their stories and hopes and dreams for the future. For some of them, I learned, this is just a season in their lives. They are working hard to make it in America, doing all they can to “move up” in the world. They see their work as a means to an end.

Others are in love with what they do. They see the value and importance of their role and feel blessed that they get the opportunity to wake up and do their job. I have come to see that both are admirable. I have also grown extremely thankful for the work that my subjects do. Without them, kids would never get to school, the trash at the beach would be overflowing and the gallery itself would be falling apart.

This project changed the way I view New York City. I spend most of my days working out of an office in midtown. I would get to work and complain about the terrible commute or the broken sidewalks without actually thinking about all that goes into making a city work.

One of my favorite experiences was photographing the men that were fixing the sidewalk outside my apartment. They were so kind to take a break from their work to let me take their portraits. Now every day when I step out of my apartment, instead of complaining about everything that needs to be fixed, I start the day being thankful for Balwinder and his crew of sidewalk repairmen.

Rachel Martin is a photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. Rachel grew up in South Texas straddling the urban/rural divide. This experience helped form her desire to explore issues that divide this country. She is also currently working on a photographic series addressing the racial divides that are present in the American Protestant church. You can see more of her work at rachelannmartin.com or on Instagram @rachelmartinphotography.

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