What do a postal carrier, police officer, semi-truck driver, barista, butcher, dairy farmer, and a gunsmith all have in common? For starters, they’re all considered "essential workers" in the time of Covid-19, and they’re all featured alongside other local "essentials" in a new photography series titled "The Essentials."
“So much has changed the past few weeks, but one thing has stayed the same, and that’s the kindness of my customers. Most of them are businesses, and they leave all kinds of little things for us. A lot of the residential customers have these rainbows and hearts in their windows, and when I see them on my route, I leave one of these hearts to let them know how much I appreciate it. It just makes my day when I see them hang one of my hearts alongside theirs.”
Colleen, Postal Carrier
in Sterling Heights, Michigan
(lives in Marine City)
It’s important to document the people we’ve decided are essential right now. Many of us don’t realize who these men and women are, the ones who go off to work every day while we stay home. Of course we all know about the doctors, nurses, and grocery store clerks, but some of the other essential workers might surprise you. For example, a milk truck driver whose family have been dairy farmers for decades, or the distributors who keep food and beverages stocked on grocery store shelves.
“My truck’s temperature-controlled, so I can carry anything, fresh produce, bread, ice cream, you name it. From Michigan through Ohio to New Jersey, Maryland.
There’s a lot less traffic right now. Last Thursday, I drove from Camden through Philadelphia to 476, and it took me about half an hour. At 4 o’clock, rush hour. That’s usually an hour and a half drive. But I never even had to tap the brakes, just drove right through at 55 miles an hour.”
Mike, 4th generation trucker,
As a photographer, I’m not essential, but I can help tell the stories of the people in our communities who are. Finding, interviewing, and photographing these essential workers, like Ted, the milk truck driver from Memphis, or Jesse, the gunsmith from Marine City, gives my days more meaning and structure.
"We were just saying, we're essential because last time they tried Prohibition, it didn't work out so well."
"People don't realize, we also stock water and juices, energy drinks and more. We have to keep those things stocked for people too, they need them." A trio of beverage distributors in Marysville
More importantly, it gives people in the community a closer look at who essential workers are. Often, community members suggest someone they know for an interview, a friend, neighbor, or family member they think deserves recognition. When they reach out, I contact the essential worker and we choose a time and location to conduct the interview. The preferred location is at the workplace, because that often helps tell a more compelling story, but that isn’t always possible for safety or privacy reasons.
"There seems to be some confusion, but yes, we're still open, by appointment only... but not many people are coming in.
Friday, I got a 7-page email from the BATFE clarifying how and why my shop may continue to operate "outside" — curbside or in my case parking lot side, as it were — as long as it's within the bounds of my property."
Jesse White, Gunsmith,
Marine City Gunsmith and Hobbies
I conduct the interviews from a safe distance, and keep them brief, generally less than ten minutes, including snapping a few photos. I ask each essential worker the same two questions: why do you think you’re essential right now, and how is your work different today than before? I condense their answers into brief quotes to serve as captions for the photos, then I share them on social media. So far, I’ve featured more than three dozen essential workers from the Bluewater Area, and I plan to continue the series for as long as there are distinctions between essential and non-essential workers.
This is Ellie's daddy, Ted, a modern milkman and Ellie's hero. The Rowley family's been milking cows forever, and for more than 90 years, they've been in the milk hauling business, too. Now more than ever, they're essential. So the next time you raise a glass of ice cold milk (or enjoy a nice warm milk toddy), remember Ellie and her family (and their cows).
I can’t wait until we’re all regular workers — not essential or non-essential workers — but until then, we need to see and hear essential workers’ stories, so I’ll keep helping essential workers tell them.
And to all of you still working, the Essentials in our community, I thank you. Stay safe, and be well.
To view the project, visit facebook.com/essentials2020. To participate, please visit the page and send me a private message.