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Earl Dotter, a photographer based in Silver Spring, covers the nation like a latter-day Upton Sinclair with a camera. He travels from the lettuce fields of California to the fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay, looking for people with dangerous jobs. He’s having too much luck finding them.
On film, Dotter has captured young boys wiping carcinogens off a crop duster, wizened old men dying of black lung disease, and window washers hanging by threads off the Empire State Building. “I really need to be right where the worker is,” says Dotter, an inconspicuous man of 54 who wears gold wire-rimmed glasses. He paraphrases Robert Capa, a photographer who died in 1954 covering the war in Indochina: “If your photographs aren’t good, you’re probably not close enough.”
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A series of Dotter’s photographs focusing on kids in hazardous jobs is on view this week at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters headquarters. They appear in a joint show with photographs by Illanda Huzak, who studies children working the sugar plantations of Brazil. As soon as he mounted his show here, Dotter took off to lecture at Dartmouth, where a touring exhibition of his work, sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health, stops next. The best of two decades’ worth of his images appear in a new monograph, The Quiet Sickness (AIHA Press), which he named after the byword for black lung disease.
In college, Dotter got into photography as way to cure his unbearable shyness. “It gave me an excuse to poke my nose into other people’s business,” he says. He worked as a VISTA volunteer in Tennessee, where he got to know his first stricken coal miners. He involved himself in union reform with the United Mine Workers and photographed for its magazine for five years. Then Dotter took on the textile industry. He’s recorded Mississippi children climbing on a fully operating cotton gin, visited victims of “brown lung” disease, which comes from breathing cotton fibers, and ridden shotgun on sweatshop raids in Manhattan.
His images are more journalism than art, more valuable for their dry, documentary accounts than for their composition. But some rise to the level of elegiac portraiture, like his shot of an old coal miner expiring in the shadows of his rural home, making Dotter seem like an invisible witness to a remote tragedy. Others are purely and plainly expository, like his 1997 image of the Brooklyn hospital laundry workers holding handfuls of used syringes, which roll out of the dirty sheets in a poisonous game of roulette.
“I’m trying to show how photography can humanize the statistics,” says Dotter. “My pictures allow you to experience the rigors of hard physical work for yourself.”Bradford McKee