Faces of Public Health: Earl Dotter

May 4, 2012, 4:33 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Dozens of haunting photographs of Americans working at hazardous jobs are currently on display at the David J. Sencer Museum at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s main campus in Atlanta. Called The Quiet Sickness, the exhibit shows just some of the photographs of Americans at work by award-winning photojournalist Earl Dotter. The photographs are drawn from Dotter’s decades-long trove of photographs of workers in industries that can be hazardous, even deadly, including mining, fishing, agriculture and construction. Louise Shaw, the curator for the CDC exhibit, says Mr. Dotter has “put a human face on those who labor in dangerous and unhealthy conditions over a wide range of occupations across the United States. Collectively, [the photographs] make the case for protecting the health of all working people, as well as speak to the dignity and self-respect of the individual worker in America.” NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Earl Dotter about his work.

NewPublicHealth: What has been the main focus of your work during your career as a photojournalist?

Earl Dotter: In 1969 I volunteered to become a Vista volunteer, after attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and was stationed in the Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee. That was a landmark year in coal mine safety and health because of the Farmington mine disaster which killed 78 miners, and resulted in the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Occupational Health Safety Administration (OSHA). I was rubbing shoulders with coal miners who were sick with black lung disease, and in those days a coal miner was killed just about every other day. That, along with my art background, gave me an opportunity to begin what has become my life’s work. I started taking photographs during the war on poverty era and that time period was a formative one for me because I was getting to know coal miners and other subjects of my photography in a personal way. The pictures began to have a personal style to them. I was looking at individuals, not subjects. Real people I had come to know and that began to inform what I was doing in a personal way. When people view my images, I hope they can see themselves in those individuals. You may see common ground with someone who is seeking to become all they can be even if they have obstacles, or have not yet succeeded.

NPH: Why is it important to see ourselves?

Earl Dotter: If you can establish common ground, I think that can be a motivating force. It can give you the impetus to take a second look, to not pass by the images. And in that way these individuals who work to build our country command the attention of the viewer in a more personal way.

NPH: The Quiet Sickness has been exhibited before. What is that back story?

Earl Dotter. This exhibit first appeared more than a decade ago as an exhibit of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and was shown in Washington, DC. The social concerns committee of that org contacted me and asked me to prepare an exhibit. I had been taking photographs for almost thirty years at that point, of a wide variety of dangerous occupations and had put together almost 100 photographs. Members of the organization who viewed the exhibit told me that it had reconnected them with their original motivation for entering the profession. I named the exhibit for a sign in a mill village in South Carolina. Brown lung victims, suffering from cotton dust, had made their community a hospital zone and had erected road signs that said “quiet, sickness” because the disease causes victims to spontaneously cough and wakes them at night. To me it was an apt description of the less well known problem of occupational health and illness that workers suffer in the US. It’s a problem that deserved more exposure. The title also refers to the fact that when you’re exposed to toxic chemicals, you may be sickened but it can be a long time before it manifests itself.

NPH: How has your work caused people to pay attention and act on what they see in the photographs?

Earl Dotter: My images have had impacts ranging from covers of federal brochures to testimony in Congress to a story I did about a fisherman, Douglas Goodale, who lost his arm in a fishing boat accident. That story was picked up and resulted in Douglas getting a new home, and fishing boat, on Extreme Home Makeover. My images have also been used in trade union publications. I was the photographer for the United Mine Workers journal for a number of years, and some of the photographs in The Quiet Sickness come from then. That was followed by work for the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union, and photographs for the union were used to help bring information about an effective cotton dust standard before Congress.

NPH: How do you think you’ve made a difference in the lives of some of the people you’ve photographed?

Earl Dotter: The most meaningful ways that I become aware of having made a difference are through letters from individuals in the photos. I save those letters and treasure them. In 1976 I photographed the widow of a coal miner who had been killed in an Eastern Kentucky mine, just a year after coming home from Vietnam. Years later I met this woman at an exhibit in Kentucky. She was in a wheel chair and was rolled in by the daughter she had been pregnant with in the photograph I took. She told me that the picture had helped the miners’ widows gather as a force for safer mines at the state and federal level and inspirited her daughter to be active and concerned in her adult life about workplace safety and health. Sometimes it’s just about connecting with one individual, and other times I feel there is a wider impact when my pictures are used to encourage safer ergonomic standards. My exhibit “Farm Workers Feed Us All” was on display at the US Department of Labor and a week or two later I was contacted by a woman from a local church in Maine who asked if the photographs could come be shared with her church community which caters to some of the migrant workers in the exhibit so that they could encourage community dialogue between the residents of the community and the migrants who are the engine of the agricultural economy in Maine these days.

NPH: Can you highlight a single photo that still captures your attention?

Earl Dotter: Yes, the photo of Buck Koptchak, a coal miner. In the photo, he is testing the tightness of a coal mine roof expansion bolt. It’s an important job, and if he looks worried, he has reason to. His father lost his life doing the same job two years before.

View the photographs from Earl Dotter’s exhibit, The Quiet Sickness.

View the installation of The Quiet Sickness exhibit at the CDC Museum.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.