Piper Mackay is a world, wildlife and cultural photographer based in Long Beach, California and a while back she had written a piece entitled Living the Story where she had this to say about the act of participation as it pertains to photography -
I believe the more compelling images come when you live the stories you are trying to tell…Too many times photographers stand on the sidelines photographing from a far because they are unsure how to interact with people so different from them. But really we are all the same…. We all have dreams, needs, hope, fear, love, and all the other human emotions that bind us together.
When I notified my wife I had intentions to volunteered to work at a carwash for a few hours, I received a familiar bewildered reaction from her which I almost anticipated. In the past, we’ve exchanged stories where we’ve discussed a select number of jobs each of us wouldn’t mind performing once in our lifetime so as to gain a physical sense of what it’s like. Hers revolved around preparing coffee drinks as a Barista in some trendy Manhattan or Brooklyn neighborhood while I opted for something more physically demanding and that resonated with me in some way. I didn’t choose car washing because it has the appearance to be an uncomplicated job.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite based on what I’ve seen, based on the stories my uncle use to share when he worked at one upon arriving in the US from El Salvador 33 years ago and based on the 53 cars I physically wiped down in the span of 2 hours with a group of 9 immigrant workers who a few at first seemed ambivalent towards my presence but who later accepted me perhaps because they eventually realized that I was only visiting and not necessarily just another worker added to the pack who could potentially oust them from their duties.
This wasn’t a random car wash location I had requested permission to work although I think any number of them would have probably accepted my offer when I clearly stated I wasn’t expecting any compensation for my time. All I wanted was the opportunity to photograph the workers, their process and obtain a snippet of who they are. Above everything else, I realize now how significant it was for me to have been able to work with the existing crew not just because it goes back to what Piper stated about “living the stories you’re trying to tell” but because I wouldn’t have gained the respect or consent from any of the workers had I barged in as a stranger with a camera.
I didn’t ask whether they had legal papers to be in the US because that wasn’t the storyline I was seeking to follow but assuming that some of them didn’t, each and every one of them had willingly giving me permission to photograph them which was a thumbs-up not easily received in immigrant neighborhoods for obvious reasons.
I personally lived in El Salvador for 5 years between the age of 12-17 and a few of the workers either happen to be from the same or a neighboring country such as Nicaragua or Guatemala. Culturally I know enough about El Salvador where I can easily speak about our customs, our traditions and our food and so that in return has had the tendency to put people from this small Central American country in such a comfort level like no other. They don’t necessarily see me as some American who just happens to have parents who descend from El Salvador but rather someone who cares enough about his heritage and that’s not embarrassed to speak Spanish when he needs to.
As in so many places in the world, you gotta do what you gotta do to get by and while washing cars and lathering tires with Armor All may not have been the job a lot of the workers expected to be doing upon arriving in the US, it’s a job nonetheless that sure as heck pays much better than what they could make back home especially since none of them happen to have achieved anything higher than a high school degree. Life’s a bitch in El Salvador. What most people make in an hour here in the United States, most people make in a day in El Salvador and I’ll assume it’s the same the rest of Central American countries.
I chatted a lot. To a point where I think some of them guys presumed I was more of a reporter than a photographer but to me there’s not much of a difference since in the end, the objective for both professions is to tell a story. They partnered me up with Daniel and he was more than patient in trying to erase everything I knew about how to dry a car with 2 rags in your hand. Apparently there’s a technique that I was never aware about as a customer.
During downtime which there happen to be very little of on a sunny 83(F) degree weather that I was there, Daniel shared with me where he lived, how long he had been working at the aforementioned location, about the 1 month and $7,000 it took him to come illegally from El Salvador, about the 6 days a week and 12hr day schedule he has and also about this illusion that a lot of his family members back home have about him “living in the United States.” It’s nothing what people back home in his country expect and the reason I have this continuous empathy towards him and most immigrants I come across is because my parents were in that same position 35+ years ago.
As I published this, I’m in the process of sending out a few photographs to print to subsequently composed a small album that I promised everybody at the car wash I would bring back to share and for them to keep. I only worked with the guys for 2hrs and I don’t expect for that experience to illuminate me on each and every one of their plights but the least I feel I can do with my photography is to pay more attention to those people who are never seeking it. We smiled, we joked around, I learned to appreciate what they do, how physically demanding it is and most importantly that there’s no such thing as an insignificant job, just people who feel insignificant doing it and they certainly weren’t one of them.
To view the rest of the photographs of the car wash workers I worked with, head over to the entire set on Flickr.