Capturing Capitalism's Work: Competing Photo-Narratives of the Bracero Program

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:30 PM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Erica Toffoli, University of Toronto
In the summer of 1956, photographer Leonard Nadel captured an image of a bracero in McAllen, Texas carrying a large bag of cotton on his back. The bracero is hunched over in a position that recalls Christian imagery of Christ struggling under the cross before his crucifixion and resurrection. As he lifts the bag of cotton to be weighed, the bracero is monitored by an anonymous foreman. His back to the camera, the foreman “checks off” the weight of the bracero’s load. This photograph captures both the palpable strain that the bracero experiences as he works, and the conversion of this human effort into a commodity—the cotton. If we follow the metaphor established by the image’s allusion to Christian iconography, the bracero and his labor are “resurrected” as a product and potential profit. The worker himself is erased, his labor power expropriated. I analyze this image of a “commodified resurrection” to explore the oppositional political potential embedded in quotidian photographs of working life. I argue that Nadel’s photograph allows the pictured bracero to protest universal features of 20th-century capitalism and its work on laborers: the effacement of workers’ effort, the expropriation of their labor power, and the (re)production of inequality. In doing so, I highlight the camera’s capacity to radically interrupt capitalism’s workings by facilitating workers’ agency and resistance to the exploitation and expropriation of their labor.