“We do not know how we become unaware of the unbearable heaviness of inbustry and industrialization. What wealth can they create, what a wonderful world-we tell ourselves. What we do not see is this: In many of the industrial seators, what people have been doing is not only physically demanding. […] When labour is a source of pride, material return is less of a concern for the labourers. When this pride wears out in the course of time and as money sneaks in to be a standard measure, the glory is lost and survival instincts take over.”
Zhou Hai’s The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry is one of the finest works of photojournalism I’ve seen in a while.
And living in Pittsburgh makes the connection between us and them - if I may borrow this currently oh-so-popular way of thinking - even more poignant. Pittsburgh once was one of those places where workers were toiling away under conditions shown in Zhou Hai’s work. Now it’s all gone, as are the workers, as is the glory. Pittsburgh is in an advanced state of decay where steel mills are either left to rot or being replaced by strip malls. That’s not even ironic (have you noticed how in these times, few things are really ironic?), that’s just telling. The kind of work needed to get most of what we need is done by the people portrayed by Zhou Hai. We call that globalization to give it a nice name.
But what have we really achieved by all this? Are we, with our post-industrial societies that we’re so proud of, even able to comprehend any longer what Zhou Hai is talking about when he talks about labour as “a source of pride”? And is it an achievement that our lives are now centered around consumption of cheaply mass-produced products, actually merely trinkets, coming in from Third World countries?
Maybe it’s OK if we decide we don’t want labour to be a source of pride for us. Maybe it’s OK for us to decide we want our lives to be centered on the cultural nothingness consumption really only is. But is it OK to impose that lifestyle on others?