Rain fell sideways on a November night ten years ago as half a dozen friends formed a chain between a U-Haul and a storage unit. The light from headlamps danced as bodies swung, passing twenty-pound cartons hand-to-hand. Photographer Summer Moon Scriver and I had barely made it onto the last ferry of the night, me behind the wheel of a truck packed with 300 boxes of books.
That night was the culmination of four years of collaboration for Summer, book designer Bob Lanphear, and me to produce Hands at Work: Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work With Their Hands.
The project arose from an exhibit of black-and-white photographs of people’s hands by Summer. The images of the hands of a baker, a knitter, a spinner, and a gardener spoke to me of a passion for work that I had once had and lost and that I know is missing for many other people. I wanted to give voice to those stories of satisfaction with work.
In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox writes, “When work moved from farm to city, from land to concrete, from hands to machine—in short, when the industrial revolution redefined the meaning of work for us—much was lost. Perhaps the greatest loss was the sense of cosmic wonder, of interrelationship with the universe, with nature, with the stars and breezes and plants and animals that was integral to workers on the land. No paycheck can make up for that loss.” The people featured in Hands at Work have found a way to make up for this loss: they use their hands to shape, slice, birth, repair, heal, communicate, and harvest.
They talk of living in their hands and needing to get their hands dirty, cold, or wet.
For them, the materials they use are alive and responsive; their hands teach them things they didn’t know and connect them to different times, places, and people.
We had no difficulty creating a list of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community on Lopez Island in northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles. Whenever we made the first call to ask people to participate, most were humble, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. We followed up by sending a written description of the process, and when people agreed (and everyone we asked ultimately did), we scheduled an interview and photo session at their places of work.
Summer and I arrived with lights, cameras, black backdrops, notebooks, pens, and the gift of a jar of locally-made, soothing hand salve. As Summer set up equipment, I explained that our goal was to engage in this process of documenting their work like ballroom dancers, leading and following as gracefully as possible. At times, I helped Summer with photographing by moving lights or suggesting shots to illustrate the subjects’ words about their work. Often, Summer added her own questions to the interview as she viewed the work through her camera lens.
Most of the time, it was graceful; every time, it was fun. Like the day we met with Irene Skyriver in her garden.
“What comes to mind with the title?” I asked.
“I’ve always thought of my hands as rototillers in the dirt,” Irene said, scooping out a shallow hole for the corn seedling she was planting. Summer squatted beside Irene, focusing her camera lens on Irene’s calloused hands. Click. Click.
“How would you describe yourself and the kind of work you do with your hands?” I asked, crouching in the dirt and balancing my notepad on my knee.
Irene stayed focused on the task before her. “I’m not a studied gardener,” she said. “There are so many things I don’t know about gardening. I’ve never read one gardening book – it’s just not my style. Trial and error is.” My left hand slid across the page, scrawling as many of Irene’s words as possible.
As we talked with and photographed people at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating. All expressed gratitude for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. We recognized how rare it is for any of us to spend that much time talking about our work.
The sessions typically lasted two hours. Then Summer and I each went to our home offices, Summer downloading photographs to her computer for editing, and me transcribing my hand-written notes to my computer. What followed were hours and hours of mostly solitary work shaping pictures into portraits and words into stories. Sometimes one or both of us needed to do some follow-up – more photographs, more questions. Then we repeated the process with the next person on the list.
Four years later, Summer and I saw the results of our work transferred by fork lift from a warehouse into a rental truck. For the next few hours, the rhythm of windshield wipers accompanied our conversation on the drive to the ferry terminal. A few days later, we launched the words and images into the world at a celebration at our local community center.
I’m celebrating again as I think back over the decade since the book’s release. It was a joy to talk with people about their work, and I still feel a thrill when people tell me Hands at Work moves and inspires them. I continue to believe it remains timeless.
So. Here’s a math equation for you to consider:
4 years to write X 10 years since publication = 40% off
That means Hands at Work, originally $34, is available for $20 (tax and shipping included) until December 16 if you order online here. Hands at Work just might be a perfect gift for someone in this holiday season.