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Dartmouth News
>  News Releases >   1998 >   May

Hazardous working conditions exposed in Dartmouth photo exhibit

Posted 05/20/98

Photojournalist Earl Dotter likes to quote Bertolt Brecht: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." For the past 25 years, Dotter has chronicled dangerous workplace conditions with his camera, in hopes that the dangers will be ameliorated by employers and insurance providers.

A collection of his photographs, "The Quiet Sickness: A Photographic Chronicle of Hazardous Work in America," will be displayed between May 27 and July 15 in the lobby of Fairchild Physical Sciences Center Tower at Dartmouth College. On view from from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, the show has traveled throughout New England as part of a three-year outreach effort to raise awareness about the physical dangers of working in mine shafts, on cotton fields, under bridges and on scaffolding. The exhibit is being sponsored by the Dartmouth College Superfund Basic Research Program, which is studying the ways that arsenic, chromium, mercury and other heavy metals affect human health and the environment.

"The exhibit's title, 'Quiet Sickness,'comes directly from a street sign I photographed in Greenville, S.C., where residents worked in a local cotton mill. Because of their working conditions, many of them suffered from brown lung disease. Victims had a difficult time sleeping through the night, so signs were erected to create a virtual hospital zone so residents could sleep at any time of the day," Dotter said. "Considering the toll and lives lost by disease, a 'quiet sickness' is a largely unrecognized problem in our society. There is a long latency period before some diseases manifest themselves."

His work has helped convince employers, and particularly their insurance providers, that they have an economic self interest in ameliorating workplace hazards, from disease and danger to painful repetitive-motion injuries.

"I hope that viewers of my photos can find a common ground with the subjects," Dotter said. "If they can see these folks as part of the human family, then they will find value in helping ameliorate bad working conditions."

Dotter began his career as a labor photographer in the coal fields of Appalachia. He worked briefly for VISTA and then agreed to become the photojournalist assisting in reform efforts of the United Mine Workers. The resulting photos have spoken of the pride these and other laborers take in their work as well as of its dangerous and dehumanizing aspects. Dotter's photographs have been used extensively in textbooks, health and safety manuals and national magazines.

Dartmouth scientists received a five-year Superfund grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 1995. "The Northeast is an ideal place for this type of research because it contains a full range of extremes -- from places contaminated by industrial wastes to pristine forests," says Joshua Hamilton, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth Medical School and director of the grant.

Researchers on the project have focused on mechanisms by which heavy metals affect human health and the environment. Their program project includes molecular, epidemiological, and ecological studies and takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the complex issues of heavy metal contamination. In addition to the research, the project has a community outreach component which includes bringing experts, like Dotter, to the Upper Valley for community education.

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