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On Labor Day, Your Photos Tell the Story of 'Hard Work'

On this Labor Day, let's celebrate those who do the hardest work in the only way we know how: telling their stories.

The Picture Show blog from NPR and the KPCC's blog have joined together to create a collective storytelling project called Public Square.

For the project's first theme, you, the audience, have been asked to take portraits of people around you who work hard, often thankless, jobs and post those pictures to Instagram with the tag #PSHardWork.

In the last couple of weeks, photos of coal miners, custodians, barbers and other community members have been scattering our Instagram feeds. The dirt under fingernails and creases on faces only tell part of the story. So we asked Public Square project leaders Claire O'Neill, multimedia producer and editor of The Picture Show, and Grant Slater of AudioVision blog to share more of the story. They, along with KPCC photographer and videographer Mae Ryan, are the brains behind this work.

How do photos enhance a written story, and vice versa?
An image is the most efficient way to describe a person or place — or to evoke a feeling. But a lot of fact and truth is left out of the frame. Context matters, and that's where we want to read about what's going on.

Slater: A photo without context is just a pretty picture. Most community projects focus on the photo alone. That's where we want to be different. We want to hear people's stories even more than we want to see their photos.

Which story and picture has grabbed your attention?
This portrait of a mine-worker named Sean really jumped out to me. The portrait itself is beautiful. But the caption — that is, the story — takes it to another level. Photographer Marisha Camp had taken the photo a while back, and that's fine. She explains that Sean worked for $12 an hour in really tough conditions and, sadly, when she went back years later, found that he had passed away.

[Correction: Sean earned $12/hour according to the photographer's original caption.]

Slater: One story did drive home the power of the Public Square project for me. The photo wasn't the strongest. It was essentially a selfie of a person submitted of her mother and a 14-year-old disabled girl named Maddy. The mother is a personal care nurse. Both she and Maddy have big grins on their faces. These are the small stories that, woven together, make up the fabric of our collective Hard Work.

What surprised you most about the stories shared on Instagram?
The public radio audience is every bit as smart as we are. We don't have a monopoly on good stories, and it's really important to listen. We got back dozens and dozens of poignant stories from around the world. I didn't know what to expect, and I was thrilled (and surprised) by the depth of people's stories.

Why did you pick 'Hard Work' to be the project's first theme?
We love the spirit of Instagram — and want to leverage the potential for something more meaningful than #selfies and #sunsets.

So our first theme has some universality to it: We all have to work. And often the least glamorous jobs are the hardest ones — or the most thankless. We just thought it'd be nice to take a minute to thank the people who make the world go around in sometimes invisible ways.

Slater:When we were thinking about starting a community project of our own, we asked ourselves what a public radio audience could contribute to this shared space... Public media is about stories, and we want to hear the stories of our audience.

We chose Hard Work because it's something universal. It also pushes people out of their comfort zone. The project asked them to interact with their community and take on the role of a journalist, even for a little bit.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Megan Johnson
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