From Earl Dotter:

Altamont Enterprise: Earl Dotter’s Immigrant Job Training School Visit

» Posted by on Jun 13, 2019

Dotter: ‘Photojournalist of working people’

— and of refugees who want to work


ALBANY — Earl Dotter moved quietly around the long tables in a classroom on the second floor of the Emmaus United Methodist Church in Albany last month, taking photos of refugees and immigrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Afghanistan, and many other countries. The newcomers to the United States were attending a session of the Job Club that will help them prepare for and find employment.

Dotter was brought to the Capital District by the Northeast New York Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health, whose executive director, Matt London, called him “the preeminent photojournalist of working people, and people while they’re working.” 

His touring exhibit of 150 photos from his new book, “Life’s Work: A Fifty Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the USA,” came with him.

While in Albany, Dotter visited a number of job sites to take photographs. London said he visited, for instance, sanitation workers; a crew doing telephone-pole installation; a facility for adults and youth with developmental disabilities; and a hands-on training session in sandblasting, sheetrocking, and other skills offered by a local union.

At the Job Club in Emmaus Church, Dotter took pictures while students talked about what makes a good first impression, practiced the right way to shake someone’s hand, and learned about the questions to expect in an interview. Throughout the class, interpreters trained and paid by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants would explain to groups of newcomers who spoke their language what the instructor had said.

The instructor, James Brisbin, asked a woman new to the club what kind of job she might to do, and, after some discussion, they agreed that she might do well working for Capital Produce in Menands, where the Job Club has placed some clients, cutting and packaging vegetables. Brisbin explained to her, through an interpreter, that Job Club staff will prepare her for the interview and the bus ride from her home and help troubleshoot any logistical issues that may arise.

Clients have a range of needs. A young woman from Afghanistan told Brisbin she wants to study pre-med, and asked him where at Albany Medical Center she could volunteer to get experience for her résumé.

Brisbin asked a woman from the Middle East to demonstrate with him how to answer a job interviewer’s questions. He told the group that she has already held several jobs and is now looking to build a career as a teacher. He told them to expect questions like, “Why do you want to work here?” or, “Can you work under pressure?” “What is your greatest strength?” or “What interests you most about this job?”

— Photo by Earl Dotter 
In this photograph by Earl Dotter, Safdar Warriach of Afghanistan smiles and removes his soft, round-topped pakol cap after the Job Club instructor recommends to the class that they not wear hats to job interviews. 


After the close of the job-training session, and after Dotter took portraits, against a black cloth backdrop, of all of the refugees and staff who wanted to be photographed, he told The Enterprise he started taking photographs years ago because of something a college instructor had told him many years earlier.

Dotter had moved to California and worked for two years in a bottle factory to establish residency in the state since he had learned that residents could attend college “practically free,” he said. He went to San José State, where an instructor told him that he should pick up a camera.

The instructor told Dotter that the most important thing artists can do is express their personal understanding of the world they live in. Dotter began a process of exploration, he said, that continues to this day.

Dotter started taking photos of “anything and everything,” he said. He went on to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York, planning a career in advertising design. He took photographs of residents of the Lower East Side neighborhood where he lived, and saw two of his photos published on the cover of New York magazine during the first year of its existence.

“I was a painfully shy kid,” Dotter said, “and the camera gave me an excuse to poke my nose into other people’s business.” Photography washed his shyness away, he said.

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Powerful pose: Saleh Masudi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo attended a Job Club session last month offered by Emmaus’s Refugee and Immigrant Support Services. According to Peggy Kaufman, Masudi recently started a job working at a trash recycling center. Kaufman is a volunteer with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants who has been working closely with Masudi and his wife and children to help all of them adjust to and integrate in the United States. 


“Learning from my subjects”

Joining VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, in 1968 and being assigned to work in East Tennessee allowed Dotter to rub shoulders with coal miners, he said, whose job was so dangerous at the time that a miner died every other day.

He stayed on in the area and, as a staff worker for several years with the United Mine Workers of America Journal, he would often photograph coal miners underground and in their communities. They would see their photographs in the journal and, over time, become friends, inviting him to break bread with them in their homes, he said.

The miners would sometimes tell him about hazards to look for and try to photograph underground, such as miners working with electricity while standing in water up to their boot tops.

“Learning from my subjects before ever picking up my camera has served me well,” he said.

He has since spent a lifetime documenting people at work, often in dangerous conditions, as well as their lives at home and in the community. He has photographed first responders at the World Trade Center on 9/11, fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and immigrants on Maryland’s Eastern Shore region.

He has also worked with writers to tell stories using both words and pictures. Denver-based writer Cindy Becnel and Dotter covered Native American and Canadian First Nation Tribes members developing sustainable-energy alternatives on tribal lands. And Dotter worked with journalist Suzanne Gordon to document the day-to-day experiences of healthcare workers at all levels at the not-for-profit Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.

Educating others

Since 1999, Dotter has served as a visiting scholar in the Occupational and Environmental Health Program of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, which brings him into contact, he said, with experts in all disciplines, including indoor air quality, the hazards of commercial fishing, and experiences of migrant farm workers. These experts have opened doors to many different photographic projects.

Many books of Dotter’s collected photos have been published.

He is happy, he said, when his photographs are displayed in exhibits in the communities where they originated, educating people there and allowing workers to feel pride and dignity and, in some cases, to learn about health programs available to them.

He cited an exhibit at the foot of a commercial fishing pier in Portland, Maine of photos of fishermen, and photos of local tree trimmers, from his book, “The Farmworkers Feed Us All,” that were included in a display in a public library in Aroostook County, Maine.

About the Job Club in Albany, Dotter said, “Today, I quickly learned that there were a couple of people who were camera-shy, so I respect that.” At the training session, two women from the Middle East had asked not to be included in photographs.

“I am well aware of the lengthy struggles each new immigrant faced just to arrive here in the United States,” Dotter wrote in an email to The Enterprise. He went on about the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, “I found it so valuable that RISSE was providing them with the skills and confidence to put their best foot forward as they seek gainful employment for the first time.

“RISSE helps them to step onto their new career ladder in New York, starting at a higher rung on that ladder. Furthermore, RISSE will provide a backup system if confronted with unexpected circumstances at their new job such as being asked to do dangerous work without proper training or personal protective equipment.”

During the day he spent at Emmaus Church, Dotter said that taking a photo is “the beginning of a dialog between my subject and their photographer.”