The First Word: A Window From the Past
One of the more difficult tasks I’ve undertaken as your editor was making a selection from Sean Sexton’s vast collection of photographs to showcase in this issue.
Of his 20,000 Irish photographs, dating from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, Sean picked 125 for me to choose from. Over many transatlantic phone conversations as we worked out the details, I came to appreciate both Sean’s knowledge of world history and his commitment to protecting his collection. The photographs are proof of what happened in Ireland. They “bear witness at the court of human experience [against the pen of revisionist historians]” he says.
And so it was that on Labor Day, while friends were taking in the final day of summer on the beach, I was in the office, downloading photographs and taking in scenes of evictions and revolution.
Did I mind spending my Labor Day indoors in the “dark room” of Ireland’s history? No way. It was a moving experience; a rare opportunity to delve into the past and put a face to the reports of what happened.
But since it was Labor Day, I did pause to consider the contribution that the Irish had made to the American labor movement. It was Peter McGuire who first proposed a national holiday for workers. Born to Irish immigrants on the Lower East Side, New York City, in 1852, Peter became the breadwinner for his family at 11 when his father was off fighting with the Union Army. For a while he made his living as an itinerant carpenter traveling around the country. Eventually he went on to become the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, and propose a day honoring those who “from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Mike Quill also came to mind. Quill fought in Ireland’s War of Independence as a lad of 14. Making his way to New York in 1926 at age 21, he found employment working on the construction of the new IND subway line – 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. He went on to form the Transit Workers Union in 1934.
Of course, no mention of Labor Day is complete without a salute to Mother Jones, who left for America in her teens when the Great Famine swept through her village of Inchigeelagh, Co. Cork. Jones, who lost her husband and children to yellow fever in 1867, and most of her possessions in the great Chicago fire, turned to politics and went on to become a major figure in the labor movement. She is especially remembered for her work with miners and the plight of child laborers.
As I worked my way through Sean’s collection, expecting at any moment to come across a photograph of Mother Jones as a child, I thought about how all those leaders had been informed by the past. How what happened in Ireland, and their own experiences of want and hardship, had given them empathy for others and a determination to bring about change.
Later, as I walked home still musing on the past, wondering if I had made the right selections, gotten across the importance of Sean’s collection, and what design problems would be posed by his admonition “No cropping. It’s the whole score or nothing. You wouldn’t edit Mozart,” I was brought back to the present by a man asking if I could spare some change.
As I rooted in my wallet for a couple of dollars, I listened to his story of a job lost – he hadn’t eaten in two days and was about to lose his apartment.
Where are our documentary photographers of today? I wondered. Are they off chasing Lindsay Lohan or some other celebrity? Who will bear witness to what’s happening, put a face on poverty and help us see beyond the statistics and the reports?
In truth, isn’t it easier to get lost in all the modern distractions, in sound bites and “reality shows” than to face reality? To turn the channel when some “serious” news comes on? To look at a 150-year-old photograph of a homeless person than to meet one in the flesh?
And yet, I return to Sean’s photographs, and through them I can more clearly see the present. When I look at Sean’s images of evictions, I consider anew the word “foreclosure” and what it means in human terms today.
The photographs remind me, as a reader writes in this issue, “It’s a wonder we survived at all.” And in a strange way, in this gallery of the past, I find hope. Because we did survive. We did, and we will.