Drexel photo exhibit focuses on dangers, diseases American workers endure


A photographic exhibit documenting America’s most hazardous jobs continues on display at Drexel University.

“Badges: A Memorial Tribute to Asbestos Workers” and “Life’s Work: A Fifty Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the U.S.A.” both feature the photos of  Earl Dotter.

For nearly 50 years, Dotter has documented the people who put themselves in harm’s way, 9 to 5.

In 1969, fresh out of college, he started photographing those engaged in the single most deadly job in America: coal mining in Appalachia. An explosion in Farmington, West Virginia, had killed 78 miners. Then, in 1972 at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, a dam holding back more than a hundred million gallons of mining waste water burst, wiping out thousands of workers’ homes and killing 125 people.

One of the survivors of the Buffalo Creek disaster was Paul Rhodes. He went back to work a year later, and Dotter took a picture of him in a miner’s shack, waiting to go underground. Dotter said it was the first portrait he took that was any good.

“Miner clothes had darkened the plywood walls, by rubbing against it, and made a black cavern, with window light — Rembrandt window light — illuminating Paul’s face,” he said.

At the time, a coal miner perished every other day in America. The Farmington disaster spurred the formation of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and, since then, safety regulations have improved. But what interested Dotter were the thousands more killed quietly, over a long period of time, by black lung.

He went on to photograph workers in cotton mills, many of whom were sickened from byssinosis, also called “brown lung, from breathing cotton dust.

Dotter would also photograph hospital workers, skyscraper window washers, and the job that is currently the most hazardous in America: commercial fishing.

Dotter is also a longtime collector of vintage worker ID badges that are often much more ornate than the laminated cards most workers today have hanging on lanyards. The badges — some dating to the ’40s — show workers’ faces embedded in metal, with the name of the company embossed on the top.

Dotter calls them “industrial jewelry,” and he has several dozen in the accompanying exhibit, “Badges: A Memorial Tribute to Asbestos Workers.”

“The badge for a worker has his photograph and the company he spent most of his career, in close graphic proximity,” said Dotter, adding that the company named on the badge often contributed to the worker’s ill health. “As a former graphic designer, that really has a power message to convey in this exhibit.”

Both exhibitions are in Drexel University’s Main Building until November.

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