The Invisible Workforce


Joshua Lim
Digital Documentary Photography
December 2008

When I set out to document the Duke maintenance staff I wasn’t really sure what approach I should take. I remember that the original concept of the project came from various stories I had heard about Duke maintenance workers from friends. One friend related to me a story about a coworker that he worked with at the Duke Recycling Center. He told me that one of the Duke employees had been driving the same truck, without a promotion, for twenty years. Another friend pointed to a Chronicle article that profiled a woman who had been working at Chick-Fil-A for thirty years.

These stories were disturbing to me because I had probably seen or interacted with that man and woman at some point during my time at Duke, and I wouldn’t even know their faces if I saw them again. So it occurred to me at that point that there was something fundamentally flawed about the current dynamic between the students of Duke University and the employees. I started to see an apathy, in myself and in others, towards those who work the less glorious jobs in the dorms and elsewhere. There seemed to be a whole workforce that was invisible to the student population and either they were being hidden from us deliberately or we as students were refusing to see the people who do important work.

So with these questions in mind I started to get up earlier in the morning with the intention of meeting some of these people who I thought were invisible. I met Sheriffe first while I was wandering the hallways of Kilgo. I explained to her my project and she agreed to let me follow her through her daily routine. She seemed interested in why I was documenting her work and this gave me some hope, that maybe my project might go somewhere.

I met Keith next and learned more about the daily routine of a Residence Life and Housing employee. I followed him on three different occasions and tried to document his work as completely as possible, yet I never really got to know him as a person. This I would say is my biggest regret, that I was not able or willing to cultivate a more meaningful relationship with someone who was open to letting me photograph his work.
Once I came to the decision that I was not going to pursue a personal profile of one worker, I tried to branch outside of the dormitories. I met Andy and John on the West Campus quad and followed them for a few hours while they cleared leaves from the patios. They didn’t say much, probably because the leaf blowers were incredibly loud, but they seemed completely open to letting me document their work.

The last photographs I took were of the trash compactor being transported out of the Kilgo fire lane. I felt that including these images would complete the cycle of trash from its source (students) through its handling (Residence Life and Housing Services) and finally to its last stages of transport away from Duke’s campus (Duke Sanitation).