Oh, the Troubles I Seen: A Photo Essay on Labor and Toil

Short of being completely disabled or extremely young or elderly, we must work. From the lowliest worm to the sparrow to kings and queens, we have to get after our daily labor.

In one form or other, directly or indirectly, we bring the vegetables in from the fields, the meat from the plain, the water from the river, going about our appointed tasks to keep ourselves fed and hydrated.

Call it Darwin’s first imperative: Do what we must to get food and liquid down our gullets and survive for another day.


Farmer Taking Banana Crop to Market, Uganda, by Robert Muckley


Here in the West, we often conflate work with life itself—as our passion, our very identity. And we do so with a not-always-clear demarcation between it and the other forces of family, romance, leisure, and recreation that make competing claims on human time and energy (in civilized places, that is, like Canada, or Europe…).

Or we apply the “work ethic” to all of life in vainglorious bromides like the currently fashionable “Work Hard, Play Hard” T-shirts that leave me mentally tired just contemplating them.

Really, folks: can we just, sometimes, call time-out on the constant struggle to excel and muscle ourselves to the front of the damn line in every damn thing?


Fetching Fuel, Morocco, by Sarah Murray


Because the thing is, work as “career,” as identity and meaning-maker and joy-giver and mind-expander, is a kind of privilege unknown to most workers through most of history. Not that there’s anything wrong with careerism; quite the contrary. But we do well to remember it is mostly a function of privilege and education, and that lovely word “choice,” and also, the blind dumb luck of where and when we were born, and to whom.


Building a Cow Dung Hut, India, by Andrew Hidas


And that in most of the world, work remains hard, and body- and often spirit-breaking, even as it reveals a kind of nobility of hope for a future the worker him- or herself will likely never attain, but whose children may.

That is always the compensation, the parental imperative and burden, is it not? I may not reach the promised land, but I stoop down and toil here for my children…or children’s children.

(The survivalist gene runs deep, and is ultimately oriented toward times distant and unknown…)


Farmer With Oxen, India, by Pandiyan V


In these photographs, we take a brief tour through some of the more hardscrabble places of the world, where work involves a kind of ceaseless toil, often under primitive conditions, against the elements, against prevailing economic conditions, and against the steady deterioration of the main tool that many of these photo subjects use to attain their daily bread: their own fierce, heroic, mostly hardened, but ultimately vulnerable bodies.


Rock Crushing, Sri Lanka, by Brett Davies


None of this is to romanticize the work pictured here, as if the subjects embodied some notion of the noble, “real,” pre-technological human being. Romanticize, no: I would not wish this kind of hard, sustained, often dangerous work upon myself nor anyone I know.

But one need not romanticize nor go soft in the head to recognize the heroism of such commitment, and the nobility of carrying it out, often in intolerable, perilous conditions.


Sulfur Miners, Indonesia, by Pogo1


Except these workers do tolerate those conditions, because they seldom have any other choice. Options are few, and hard to come by.  And the fact that their work may help put another few morsels of food in their mouths, or the mouths of their children, is rationale enough, in this world they know all too well, to get up in the morning, and do it again.

Regulatory oversight? Salary negotiations? “Occupational Safety and Health Administration?” In another world, another time…


Making Salt, Uganda, by Jussi Mononen


But of course, too often it is the children themselves who toil for their own or their families’ sakes, far be it from them to hold any semblance of a future in their already callused hands. They so at the bidding of desperate parents or rapacious overlords, born into the only world they know, their childhoods burned behind them like yesterday’s tilled fields.


Boy Farmer, The Philippines, by CJ Chanco


Too long, that some may rest,
Tired millions toil unblest.

That was the English poet William Watson, who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries and wrote those lines in “A New National Anthem.” Would that the world could incorporate such sentiments into “A New INTERnational Anthem,” no longer abiding with such ease the “unblest” masses whose lowly-paid toil is seen as their necessary station in life.

“How long, O Lord?” goes the Psalm of David. “Will you forget me forever?”


Barefoot Toil, India, by Abhinav Asokh


Finally, we need not go to India, Sri Lanka or Uganda to see back-stooping work performed for long days under the sun. In his 1974 master work, “Working,” Studs Terkel wrote, “If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then they’d know how that fine salad got on their table.”

It gets there via the exertions of these people below—and many millions more like them the world over. Let us give a bow of gratitude, recognition and understanding in their direction on this day.


Fieldworkers, Central Coast of California, by Pam Link


A stirring vocal interlude here at 2:55 is bookended by the usual impeccable musicality of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet… 

Come on, grab your coffee cup and stop by this blog’s public page on Facebook for regular 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by the same kind of lovely photography you see here. http://www.facebook.com/andrew.hidas/

Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

All other photos via Creative Commons licensing, some rights reserved, see more at photographers’ Flickr sites:

Robert Muckley, Ascot, UK:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertmuckley/

Sarah Murray, Lincoln, Nebraska:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarah_c_murray/

Andrew Hidas, Santa Rosa, California: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

Pandiyan V, Chennai, India: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pandiyan/

Brett Davies, Sri Lanka: https://www.flickr.com/photos/photosightfaces/

Pogo1: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pogo1/

Jussi Mononen, Espoo, Finland  https://www.flickr.com/photos/monojussi/

CJ Chanco: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cjchanco/

Abhinav Asokh, Tirunelveli, India:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/abhinav_asokh/

Pam Link, Central Coast, California: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pamelalink/

9 comments to Oh, the Troubles I Seen: A Photo Essay on Labor and Toil

  • candied  says:

    What a thoughtful comment on the economics of work.
    Always puzzled about why physical work has been relegated to the bottom of the financial heap, the lowest rung and yet so many won’t even accept a job working the in the field; picking, hoeing, lifting and stooping, too much work for too little money. (Yes, we have trouble finding field workers on our farm, especially whites.) Can’t say I blame them. If you are able to earn more money and not work so hard, sounds smart to me. And we are so lucky to have that choice.
    But it still makes sense to pay well, those that use their bodies for their jobs. Especially if no one wants to do it. I’m glad we can afford to do so. $2 a pound is not too much for carrots. Even $3…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Candi, I suspect the answer to why physical work is relegated to the bottom of the financial heap is because it CAN be. In a pure market economy, excess labor for “unskilled” (i.e., purely physical) tasks will always tamp down wages—until even enough of the immigrants you now hire say, “No, I won’t work for that money.” Whereupon you’d be forced to raise their wages, would pass that along to your customers, and we could all get used to paying more for what is, truly, quite low-priced food, given the centrality of food in life. (Uh, basic treasured necessity, anyone?) The crazy thing is we’ll spend $5 for a fancy coffee and $11 for a ballpark beer, but kvetch about $3 for a whole pound of carrots.

      Pure capitalism has a built-in bias toward keeping wages suppressed for unskilled work, but the challenge is that suffiiciently regulated economies that can deal with the wage gap tend to be difficult to fine-tune and maintain. And even the regulations that have helped lift so many boats here—organized labor, social security, minimum wages—are under constant attack from those who abhor all regulation in what they prefer to maintain as the essentially Darwinian struggle of a pure free market. The results of that struggle are all around us, and they’re none too pretty—even here in one of the world’s most advanced economies.

  • Angela  says:

    I come from a long line of farmers, stretching back to those who had to find new fields to scrabble in when the potatoes failed and it was time to leave or starve. Born in America in 1917, my own father plowed with horses about as soon as he could walk and would wryly joke that he thought the horses got preferential treatment in the pecking order of that farm. He would also mention birds singing in the hedgerows, but make no mistake: it was a long hard day for an 8 year old, and also completely ordinary and commonplace.

    It is noteworthy that there is always, always a pecking order, those who stand behind most of these photos with fuller pockets, or fuller stomachs, and all too easy to make that ubiquitous leap to the assumption of fuller and more worthy brains, and even souls. There is no shame in doing hard physical work, but so often the systems that demand it and perpetuate its inequalities, sufferings and assumptions are indeed shameful.

    At a slight remove from the work depicted in these photos are manufacturing jobs. They too are often very physically demanding, and were abundant in the US for many years. When the pressure to pay and treat workers well began to represent a challenge to those full pockets, the jobs went away, to countries where people were slightly more desperate, less well protected, had less of a voice.

    All beings have to toil for their living, animal and human alike. Humans, with our capacious brains, have devised ways to make much of that work easier. It remains to be seen if we can make it equitable and humane.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Angela, that wry observation by your father about the farm’s pecking order wasn’t off the mark: good working horses were no doubt in shorter supply and therefore more treasured than was just another hungry and needy human body to hustle out there to the fields. And the process you describe of capital fleeing to lower-waged foreign markets is the story of our current economic distress. Having succeeded remarkably in creating a flourishing working class in the post-war era, we have been seeing those gains rolled back in recent decades as globalism takes full root, and the working class is howling, as well it should. Their need for respect and a decent standard of living is long out of the bag, and it won’t be stuffed back in. That is, lamentably, a big part of Donald Trump’s attraction: the working class thinks he’s speaking their language and addressing their ills, but of course he would disappoint them, grievously. As, probably, will everyone else until we are able and willing to take meaningful steps to address the outrageous wage disparity in this country, which is off the charts in comparison to most all other economies and our own history.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    It is, from the 30,000 ft and idealistic view, astonishing how disrespect for laborers has evolved in a country built, from scratch, with the toil of labor. Yet it was largely done by an “underclass” of immigrant populations; Chinese, Africans, Irish, etc. I suspect that our British heritage may have much to do with the aspirations of those seeking to replicate the lives of the upper class aristocrats from the home country and thereby find others to do the “dirty work” so that riches could be secured. The Brits and their treatment of the Irish were ahead of this game and likely planted the seed for the “New World.” But slave and cheap labor has likely been the foundation of many civilizations; building pyramids, churches, and shrines of all sorts to the gods and to the powerful on earth. Apart from the huge resources available to lobby and to fabricate false realities (AND get tax breaks for contributing to those dark efforts), I doubt the U.S. is all that unique in the world and in historical labor/ownership issues.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, as we look back on and reckon with our own national travail of slaveholding, we sometimes seem to think we’re the only ones who ever engaged in such an atrocity, so a little history immersion can be a true perspective enhancer in that regard, for sure. Which doesn’t justify us not living up to the especially high ideals of our Constitution, but it does let us know we’re more just an equal player in the human pageant, warts, wonders and all, than not. Between those on the right who insist we’re the greatest, God-anointed country in the history of the world and those on the left who cite us as the chief purveyor of greedy colonialist oppression, there is the reality that we are a profound mixture, like many countries are, but that our ideals, at least, and the ingenious blueprint our Founders drew up for trying to get us to live up to them, remains still as a beacon and a measuring stick for ourselves and the rest of the yearning-to-be-freer world.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Great point on us as a beacon and global measuring stick; and truly a factor we must not underestimate. The world needs hope and belief that life can be good and just and fair, and our country has a long history of holding out that hope and exemplifying many of the necessary attributes and qualities that make these things possible. This all makes our current political atmosphere all the more dismaying, as the world looks on at The Donald and the myriad other dysfunctional and dark people/movements afoot on the national political stage.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      The irony being that Trump & his ilk think the problem is that the U.S. has been too weak on the world stage, and he’s once again going to assert our muscle and ensure the world of our strong leadership. That view mistakes arrogance for leadership, hubris for the true strength of equanimity and humility. It reflects an adolescent confusion and groping for maturity, while the world looks on and recoils…The best message we can send back in reassuring the world is to resoundingly defeat that view come November.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Right on. While Trump wants to solve world problems with a show of adolescent strength and bullying, dark forces behind the party (read: Koch brothers) are working on other fronts to gain their own advantages and further disadvantage others. i read recently that Charles Koch was able to persuade a researcher in his employ to testify against EPA emissions regulations by postulating that air pollution actually screens out dangerous solar rays that cause skin cancer. Further, the K brothers had enough payola to influence district courts to uphold the appeal against the EPA. Trump is visible and cartoonish and we have reason to fear him; and all the while there is money working behind the scenes to cause equal, or more, reasons for fear (whoa, preaching fear sounds way too much like the Trumpistas—-perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

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