Car Pooler #3 Makes You See
by Nick Kolakowski
We spend our lives refusing to see. We make a point of ignoring the disagreeable and the unjust. Every morning we board the subway or bus and stare past a rotating cast of homeless characters begging for change, even when they thrust a dirt-crusted hand under our noses; every night we click past images of genocide and warfare, instead directing our screens toward the scripted, bright and happy. You do it; I do it. There’s more than enough blame here to fill everyone’s bowl.
Alejandro Cartagena’s Car Poolers series hints at some Big Topic issues—immigration and exploitation, social status and the true cost of expansion—while forcing its audience to see what many choose to ignore. From most angles, the trucks he photographs would be nondescript. Shooting from high above, however, offers a view into the trucks’ flatbeds, and a world otherwise hidden by tailgates and steel sides: workers in worn jeans and dusty sneakers, packed flat amidst wheelbarrows and wooden pallets and buckets of tools.
In Car Pooler #1, Car Pooler #2, and Car Pooler #4 (all 2011) the workers appear asleep. An exception is Car Pooler #3 (2011), which features two of its three subjects awake but lying down, arms tight against their bodies; one of them has a hand cupped around his mouth, possibly smoking a cigarette. They are in transit, most likely to a construction site of some sort. There is a good chance that, if they keep quiet and still, nobody around them will notice their existence.
In a journalistic career spanning more than three decades of the twentieth century, Joseph Mitchell cataloged the people who built New York City and kept it fed. He wrote about the Mohawk construction workers scrambling along the steel skeletons of rising skyscrapers, and the hard lives of fishermen in the harbor. Whatever their occupation, the common denominator was pain: broken arms, failing livers, empty stomachs, dimming eyesight, and—perhaps worst of all—a creeping sense that in the end their efforts were all for nothing, that the world had abandoned them to die in crumbling hotels or on backwater reservations. One doubts many of the office workers in their gleaming towers, or the diners slurping down an oyster, gave much thought to the toil that had built the world around them.
Like Mitchell, Cartagena finds his subjects at low ebb, gathering strength for yet another shift of pouring concrete, shifting tons of soil, building the walls and floors of a new subdivision or office building. They create the bones of this world, even as they remain invisible to most of those within it. Cartagena’s environmental portraits aren’t imbued with the minutely choreographed symbolism of studio setups, but each is nonetheless weighty with subtext. We’re aware of the centuries-long fights over workers’ rights and immigration; we also know that, for as long as humanity’s existed, masses of people have been compelled into backbreaking labor for minimal payback. For anyone looking for a modern symbol of those eternal constants, it’d be hard to do better than a worker passed out beside his dusty tools, in a truck grinding toward the next job with the inevitability of Charon’s raft crossing the River Styx.
That’s what makes Car Pooler #3 so interesting. Unlike most other photographs in the series, two of its three subjects are awake. One of the pair wears sunglasses, hiding his gaze, but his compatriot to the right offers the viewer a flat gaze—wariness or defiance, depending on one’s point of view. Look at me all you want, he seems to be saying, or ignore me altogether. It makes no difference. I’m here, and I’m staring right back at you. Sooner or later, you won’t look away.
Nick Kolakowski is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, and Carrier Pigeon, among other venues. He’s also the author of “How to Become an Intellectual,” a work of comedic nonfiction. In the daylight hours, he helps edit the science-and-technology Website Slashdot.
See more work by Alejandro Cartagena available through Circuit Gallery: