Renown photographer and sociologist Lewis Hine wrote, 'Whether it be a painting or a photograph, the picture is a symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality...In fact, it is often more effective than reality would have been, because, in the picture, the nonessential and conflicting interests have been eliminated.' During the first half of the twentieth century Lewis Hine's photographic images of working class America both informed and inspired social change in this country. Hine used photography as means of presenting visual evidence, but he also employed a very keen and calculated artistic sensibility in his photographs which better conveyed his message.
In 1992, when photographing in Northeast region of Brazil, Miriam Romais first visited a sugar refinery where she was immediately drawn to the images and story she saw unfold before her. In the Paraiba Sugar series she began a photographic expose on the Brazilian sugar cane industry and its workers. In the states of Pernambuco and Paraiba sugar is the primary industry, which has been on a steady decline due to decreased sales to the United States and other foreign markets. This combined with government restrictions and the failure of the refineries to modernize their operations makes for a very uncertain future for the area. The Usina Santa Rita refinery, produces brown sugar (acucar demerara) for export and distilled alcohol. By law the distilled alcohol produced at Usina Santa Rita can only be sold to the government, who in turn purchase only 10% of the refinery's output.
The refinery at Paraiba is in poor shape, and the physical working conditions are very harsh. Workers at the Usina Santa Rita refinery work 12 hour shifts and their average pay is about $40 US dollars per month. The sight of a child working on the line is not uncommon. The photograph Young Man Surveying Gears bares an uncanny similarity to those photographs produced by Lewis Hine of child laborers in the textile mills which Hine made as a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine's photographs helped to bring about laws in the United States which prevented children from working in factories. With that in mind it is ironic that today the US depends so heavily on goods imported from countries who actively use child laborers in their factories.
The photographs of Miriam Romais pay a fitting homage to the work of Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, Alexander Rodchenko and other photographers of the early 20th century who focused their cameras on the working classes of their nations, creating very stylized artistic representations which glorified the worker in the factory. In the Paraiba Sugar series, Romais, as a social documentary photographer, draws attention to the conditions which exist in the Brazilian sugar refineries, and presents us with an account of the people who work in them. However it is the artist's own compassion and respect for these people who lives are affected by this refinery that may push the boundaries of objective detachment, but for Romais it allows her the ability to present her subjects with a degree of personal dignity they are seldom granted.
Gary Hesse (c)1997
Miriam Romais has been with En Foco as managing director since 1992, and became executive director and Nueva Luz editor in November of 2005. Her work can be viewed on her website at www.romaisphotos.com
Miriam Romais Exhaust, Itaipú, Brazil, 2010 Archival Pigment Print email@example.com www.romaisphotos.com This series reflects my continued fascination with massive modern machinery used to create food or sustain life. Itaipú, the world’s largest operational hydroelectric plant in terms of power generation, is nestled on the border of Brazil with Paraguay. Five miles wide and 65 stories high, it harnesses the flow of the Paraná River, with each of its 20 turbines exposed to 160 tons of water per second. 16 Miriam Romais is a photographer, curator, and Executive Director of En Foco, Inc, a non-profit organization that nurtures and supports photographers of diverse cultures. She has served on many photography panels throughout the U.S.; her personal work has been awarded several grants and residencies, with exhibition at venues such as the Smithsonian Institution; the Museum of the City of New York; El Museo del Barrio; the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History; and many others. Romais was co-chair of the 2010 SPE national conference in Philadelphia, titled Facing Diversity: Leveling the Playing Field in the Photographic Arts.
A Just Image
As it plays out in the headlines, justice means equality, fairness, and the rule of law. Yet beyond the events broadcast on television and the news alerts flashed instantly to laptops and PDAs, there is a large realm of justice that eludes reporters. Throughout daily life - at home, in school, doing errands, tending children,m making dinner, playing sports - perceptions of justice often float just below the radar.
The Light Work Collection offered plentiful proof that photographers frequently make images of routine daily life and its relationship to a sense of justice. However, as members of the Fine Arts 395 "Art and Identity"class noticed, scholars seldom extend the concept of justice into aspects of living that are legal, but sometimes ethically questionable. Counselors, social workers, and therapists seem to take over where the justice system stops. Nevertheless, the line between the legal system's purview and personal life is not fixed. Class members were careful to insist that the law is often less subtle in its grasp of situations and unaware of complexities than are the images included in this show. Nowhere in the law is it written that by embracing a stereotype one can sometimes achieve influence skin to contesting the mold. Thoughts and feelings such as these coalesced as the subject of this exhibition.
Work and family emerged as sites where what is fair is not always what is equal. , and what is equal is not always fair. However fair or unfair, the triumphs and annoyances one experiences at work mostly fall below the threshold of the law. It is conventional wisdom, not the IRS, which suggests that wealth carries no guarantee of happiness. Creating this nuanced exhibition about justice in everyday life led the class into hearty and un-nuanced discussions about the slights, snubs, and rebuffs of an ordinary day.
The students chose the title A Just Image for this exhibition before they read about the expression in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. With the phrase, he and they recognize that art coaxes the world of appearances to create symbols signifying ideas for which there are no words. Just an image becomes A Just Image.
Mary Warner Marien
A Just Image: Selections from the Light Work Collection is the result of a collaborative effort by thirty-one Syracuse University students enrolled in Professor Mary Warner Marien's "Art and Identity" course. The exhibition examines the Fall 2007 Syracuse Symposium theme of justice. The students chose images from the Light Work Collection, considering the personal and societal meanings of justice. They have created an interactive exhibition, where, as the students write in the exhibition catalogue, "ironically... the viewer is still judging."
A Just Image invites viewers to explore the photographs and rethink their definition of justice. As the students of the "Art and Identity" course discovered, though justice is a universal concept, it does not necessarily carry the same meaning for everyone. This can be seen in the different perceptions of stereotypes, families, occupations, and leisure activities, which are some of the topics examined by the class. According to the students, " The Pictures we have chosen require more than just superficial judgment; they require the viewer to acknowledge their own stereotyped projections."