Eric Cousineau is a single father of two who works full time at Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe. He is what we call an “essential worker,” a term that has only recently surfaced in our common vernacular. It means the people without whom the infrastructure of the country would collapse and we would all starve to death. Truck drivers. Nurses. Butchers. Even newspaper art critics, though that last one is certainly open to debate.
Cousineau is also a photographer, with a BFA and a list of exhibit credits to his name. He was approached by some of the folks at Center in Santa Fe to start the Essential Worker project knowing that he was both a talented portrait photographer and that he worked at a supermarket. The original intent was to have him photograph his fellow employees, but that idea fell flat with Trader Joe’s corporate office. After receiving similarly dismissive attitudes from other skittish corporate types, he found just walking up to people and asking if he could take their picture a more successful approach. The result is a diverse and growing collection of black and white photographs that document the essential workers here in New Mexico. God forbid some corporation allows people to see that.
What is essential in understanding Cousineau’s work is his perspective. There have been several excellent projects photographing essential workers published over the last few months, but what sets Cousineau’s work apart is that he tells his subjects he works at Trader Joe’s, not the New York Times. Photographer and subject share a common experience: the constant threat of being exposed to a deadly virus in order to do basic jobs to provide for themselves, their family and, really, the rest of the world. You can see that relationship in the photographs.
This Labor Day will be without the parades, BBQs and double-headers at the ballpark. We’ll probably all just be home, except the essential workers, of course. This Labor Day is an opportunity to look at workers in a different way than we have before and consider a few basic questions. Who is essential? How do we treat and compensate those that we can’t do without? Has the fundamental relationship between capital and labor changed in America, and what will that look like should we ever get out from under this wretched pandemic? Maybe it’s time to start seeing all workers in a new light. We can thank Eric Cousineau for showing us their perspective, and his, through his lens.