Documentary photographer Mario Quiroz believes that art should be a “Trojan horse” for social change.
Twenty of his “Trojan horses” went up on display at the main public library branch Wednesday night—and indeed sparked conversation about the plight of domestic workers.
At the opening reception for Quiroz’s collection of 20 silver gelatin prints, people were not only admiring the artistry. Guests like New Haven state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield (see video) discussed wage theft and other abuses that domestic workers face.
The show includes no digital images. The photos were taken using film and produced in a dark room. Each portrait exudes strength and a sense of inner nobility that we rarely assign to those in the domestic work. The images force us to confront our own stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions about a group too long in the shadows.
At first glance, the show looks like any gallery exhibit featuring handsome black and white portraits. Part of the Domestic Workers Photo Project, the exhibit is also designed to engender dialogue and promote awareness of the plight of some 42,000 domestic workers in the state of Connecticut alone.
The movement for social and economic justice comes “through the door as art,” said Quiroz. “The idea is to break stereotypes.The last thing you would say about the women pictured is that they are domestic workers. The element of surprise helps create dialogue. It is why art is such a powerful tool.”
The exhibit is presented under the auspices of the Brazilian Immigrant Center, an organization fighting for “social, economic and political justice” with a local office in Bridgeport.
At issue is the lack of state and federal guidelines, and the lack of industry standards that leave domestic workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The organization is pushing for a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights that would establish labor standards including minimum wage and overtime pay, safe working conditions, meal and rest breaks, unemployment benefits, sick time and anti discrimination and sexual harassment protections.
Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigration Center, spoke at the reception. Responding to a question often raised by conservative camps about the damage to businesses and those considered “job creators” should the minimum wage rise significantly and workers afforded more protections, Tracy said, “ That argument has no teeth. Every time you raise the quality of life for anyone, you raise it for everyone.”
A public hearing on March 13 was held for the proposed Connecticut Legislature House Bill (HB5527), An Act Concerning a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. Sen. Holder-Winfield reported that the discussion underway in the General Assembly has gone from a bill to a task force. Winfield said he supports the bill. He said at this point, proponents are pushing for more study to flesh it out rather than risk a fight on an immediate vote and possibly losing the bill altogether, because not enough legislators support it yet. The task force will “keep the conversation going,” he said, while providing a better chance for the bill’s passage as it grows support.
“The workers we’re talking about today are a class of workers we don’t always think about,” Holder-Winfield said. “It’s atrocious what happens with them. Some of them work for between 25 cents and a minimum wage. Some of them are asked to look after children’s homes and people’s homes and are not afforded a chance to sleep.” Others do a good job, then “provisions of their contract ... disappear,” he said. He said domestic workers deserve “the same protection all of us have.”