Franklin Park, IL
My father always believed in hard work. The promise of work and the hope of economic security is the reason he chose to come to the United States. In 1978 my father found a position as a Handyman at the Sloan Valve Company, the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial plumbing systems. He has kept this job for 38 years.
My father was very proud when I began working for Sloan Valve as a hand polisher in 1999. I took these portraits of my coworkers during my freshman year at Colombia College. My father never believed I would get permission to bring my camera to work, but I wrote a letter to the Human Resources Department. Two days later I heard from Bill Sloan himself, granting me his approval to go ahead with this project.
At first, no one wanted his portrait taken. Although I was an insider, the portraits were not easy to create because my role as an outsider was met with suspicion. I came in to work everyday with my 4x5 view camera and two strobe lights. I was only allowed to take photos during our mutual lunch breaks. It was seldom that our breaks would coincide. It took three months for someone to finally approach me.
Eventually, my coworkers saw that I was motivated by a profound respect for them. My intention was to capture their dignity and individuality, the integrity of the working class, and the way in which they labor manually to secure their families’ futures, thus revealing the wonderfully understated drama of their lives.
Ultimately, I decided to reject the blue-collar tradition that was to be my presumed legacy, to become a photographer. When this project was completed, I received a scholarship from Columbia College, which assisted me to resign from Sloan in 2001. This was a big blow to my father. He always wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He could not understand why I would ever leave a job like the one Sloan offered me. My friends at Sloan didn’t understand it either. No one at work believed in dreams anymore. I will never forget the day when I discovered that I could express everything I felt and thought through pictures.