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Seeing the Big Picture

Mike Newton Dec 19, 2011

107 Stories Through Restaurant Workers Eyes
Nathan Cummings Foundation
475 Tenth Ave., 14th Floor
Through Jan. 27

How much does it matter, after all, who’s behind the camera? In “107 Stories Through Restaurant Workers Eyes,” an exhibit organized by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), it’s clear from the start who the photographers are, since the exhibition features solely photographs taken by restaurant workers.

At present, the show can be seen by appointment at the offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation in midtown Manhattan (not the most accessible spot for an art show). 

The Restaurant Opportunities Center was founded in New York City in 2002 to provide support for restaurant workers displaced from the World Trade Center due to 9/11. The national organization, ROC-United, was founded in 2007, and there are currently eight affiliates in cities including Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New Orleans. These days, the organization’s work focuses on improving working conditions in the restaurant industry nationwide, and its projects range from Colors Restaurant (a cooperatively run restaurant in lower Manhattan) to free job training. The group also offers photography classes, which is where the artwork in the exhibition comes from. 

As for my earlier question — does it matter who’s behind the camera? — in this show, the answer is yes, it certainly does. While Kelle Matsushita’s photos provide sharp glimpses of restaurant workers in action, most of these images portray neighborhoods, streets, family members and friends. Several of the photos in the show — like a series of gritty shots of elevated trains, or a compelling image of a gnarled, urban forest — are attributed not to individual photographers, but to ROC affiliates based in New York City and Chicago. You don’t know who took these pictures, but you do know that whoever they are, they work in a restaurant somewhere. William Farrington’s memorably ominous photo of harshly lit Central Park branches certainly has nothing to do with restaurants, but that’s the point: restaurant workers are more than just, well, restaurant workers. It’s not just that they have lives and families, and deserve fair pay for their labor — though of course that’s all true — but they also document the beauty and poetry of the city through stories and art. And of course, they are not so much a “they” as a “we” — after all, how many people do you know who’ve never worked a food service job? 

To be sure, “107 Stories” is a show of limited scope, but I hope ROC has more exhibitions like this so that more of these images can be not simply created, but seen.

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