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Exhibitions of black-and-white photography usually attract more black turtlenecks than coveralls. But “unseenwashington,” an exhibition sponsored by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 82, on display in the John A. Wilson Building’s atrium until Feb. 26, eschews a number of such art-world trappings—including professional artists.
“Unseenwashington” is a spinoff of “unseenamerica,” a 5-year-old photo project conceived by the cultural wing
of an SEIU local in New York City to both involve and depict the lives of its members. Like those in the national program, the eight photographers in “unseenwashington”—all SEIU members, all Spanish-speaking immigrants—were previously untrained in photography. Each was given a Nikon point-
and-shoot camera and spent 10 Saturdays learning principles of photography with Fairfax photographer Paul Pavot
at Bethesda’s Washington School of Photography.
The automatic cameras, Pavot says, allowed the students to ignore technical concerns such as shutter speeds and depth of field in favor of content and composition. The result is an eclectic collection of 28 11-by-14-inch photos that include scenes from the photographers’ workplaces and homes—such as janitors on the job, window washers dangling from cables, and immigrants congregated at outdoor markets.
But “unseenwashington” is intended to be as much a union-building tool as a collection of aesthetic objects, according to Michelle Miller, who works for the SEIU’s cultural arm. Miller says that the exhibition is “putting the workers’ feet in concrete”—a union slogan referring to building loyalty. “This is an emotional relationship you’re developing with the union,” Miller says. “It means no matter what, they’re with you.”
At the exhibition’s opening on Feb. 12, though, only one of the photographers—Berta Alicia Gómez—could get off work to attend. Gómez, who emigrated from El Salvador
22 years ago, today lives in Shaw and works in the SEIU’s offices downtown. After an hour of mingling and a speech by the head of the local, Gómez described, with the help
of interpreter Jose Gonzalez, the subjects of her five photos on display.
Gómez’s work is strikingly personal, focusing on intimate scenes of everyday life. Friends, she explained, depicts a groups of Amish tourists she saw on a visit to the zoo. Church of the Americas shows Gómez’s daughter standing in front of the steps of Our Lady Queen of the Americas, in Kalorama Heights.
In Quinceñera, taken at a traditional Latin “Sweet 15” celebration, a teenage girl stands on the stoop of a restaurant, dressed in a white gown with a necklace and tiara and escorted by a boy in a white suit too big for his skinny frame. But this is no glamour shot: Both subjects are scowling, and the girl’s head is cocked, her hands planted on her hips.
When Gómez stepped up to Quinceñera, Gonzalez, who also directs educational efforts for Local 82, asked the artist about the boy and girl’s fierce expressions. “Es natural,” she offered, without hesitation. —Mike DeBonis