Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions

By Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri

Capitalism’s far-reaching social, industrial, and cultural implications on the socio-political aspects of production, labor, and class struggle are well documented. Scholarship on labor has emphasized the social and economic aspects of the capitalist economy and the history of working classes in a global context.[1]

In the German context, a recent example is the TRAFO series Factory Reloaded, which builds upon the existing scholarship’s concerns with working-class identity formation, gendered labor, managerial expertise, workers’ struggle, multinational and national corporations, and trade unions, to name a few. The series’s contributions revisited debates on the global economy’s interactions with nationalist and post-colonial developments across diverse geographies and how these engagements shaped, or were shaped, by local ‘shop floor’ dynamics (from the cultural imaginaries of factory work and transnational flows of ideology, expertise, and knowledge, to issues of gender, class, and race).

Relatedly, Humboldt University’s research group, re: work or IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History invites us to rethink what the concepts and experiences of ‘work,’ ‘labor,’ and ‘working classes’ mean in different cultures, societies, languages, and geographies, and how the relationship between work and life course has been imagined in Europe and other parts of the world. To do that, the group proposes a broader framework to understand work/labor in relation to other human activities such as soldiering, household/family/interpersonal labor, (self-)education, sports/organized and commercialized games, artistic practice, and work related to entertainment, sex, and other service industries.[2] The group also examines the precarious nature of work/labor in the 21st century, given the shifting nature of class, labor, and production since previous centuries that has altered our views on progress through production-centered life cycles (e.g., birth, education, work, and retirement).[3]

Another Berlin-based group, Working Futures, a transnational research network at the Wissenschaftskolleg, conducts critical research on various manifestations of the future of work and workplaces at the intersection of four processes: “siliconization, financialization, ecologization, and democratization”. Building upon the questions explored by these groups and existing scholarship, “Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor”, offers a new perspective on the history and analysis of global labor practices by turning to a critical examination of labor-related visual and material culture depicting workers, work/work-place practices, and/or associated spaces/non-spaces, scientific, and/or technological processes since the late 1700s.

Figure 1. This image belongs to a series of photographs taken during the construction of electric infrastructure in Istanbul, ca. 1912–1913. Installation of the cable unwinding from the electric reel to the duct, 13 August 1912. From the private collection of Cengiz Özkarabekir.

The 19th century’s socio-economic developments not only saw the global rise of mass production, communication, industrialization, and the increased mobility of people, goods, and knowledge; they also generated new forms of spatial and temporal experiences that transformed epistemological engagements with labor and visuality. The period’s burgeoning of print and other image-making technologies, like photography and photo-engraving, yielded an almost unfettered global production of visual materials pertaining to work and labor, many of which were accessible to a mass audience through books, advertisements, periodicals, and ephemeral publications.

Photographs, architectural plans, maps, diagrams, engravings, and illustrations not only circulated amongst readers of or subscribers to journals and periodicals, they were also cut out, pasted, altered, reproduced, and recirculated within the wider public sphere. By the 20th and 21st centuries, the emergence of color photography, color printing, video-based modes of surveillance, and digital media yielded a plethora of contemporary material related to labor and workplaces, as well as the prevalence of 19th-century visual culture.

Due to the humanities’ turn to the archive, growing interest in primary documents (and their digitization), and subsequent institutional commitments to open-access collections and online digital databases, collections of labor-related material since the 1800s have become more prevalent than ever. This unprecedented ubiquity of the production, circulation, and access to digitized research content – of the material, visual, and textual variety – has yielded new forms of research, including the increasingly popular tools used in the digital humanities (e.g., data analysis, visualization, mining, mapping, and other forms of quantitative analysis). The unbridled and instantaneous access to historical and contemporary digitized material – that one can call “hyperculture”[4] – has also led many scholars in the humanities and social sciences to critically assess the nature of data science’s tools and digitized resources when it comes to historical, literary, and cultural studies.[5]

A key point raised by scholarship calling for a critical examination of research in the age of digitization and Google is the fact that despite the speed at which we can access data today, “our ability to read accurately the sources we find, and evaluate their significance, cannot magically accelerate a pace […]. The place-specific learning that historical research in a pre-digital world required is no longer baked into the [research] process”.[6] Thus, in the interest of rapidly synthesizing, flattening out, and ‘tagging’ what we are seeing as ‘data’ (or ‘metadata’), the ‘micros’ of reading practices are sidelined; we lose sight of the readers themselves and of the experientiality of texts. Similarly, looking at visual materials on a screen means that we are reading these digitized photographs, images, books, journals, and other archival documents in new ways and at new speeds, but we, as researchers, often do this without a critical interrogation of what that means for the histories we write.

Inspired by scholarship that calls for a “slow reading” of literature, or a “reading in a state of heightened awareness about what exactly we are doing when we are reading,”[7] this blog series asks researchers to conduct similarly discerning and careful readings of visual culture.

Figure 2. Emile Basil (book binder), Personal Employment Record issued by the American Press, Beirut, Lebanon, ca. 1958–1961. Courtesy of American University of Beirut Library/Archives.

In turning to examples of material culture related to labor history and practices, we ask scholars to consider the question: What can a critical reflection of the visual aspects of material culture tell us about the constructs, significance, ideologies, politics, positionality, and/or operations of labor, its contexts, actors, practices, and/or histories? While scholars have traditionally relied on the historical value of material culture, such as institutional records, print media, and photographs, as primary documents (e.g., data reservoirs or evidence-bearing documentation), recent scholarship has made great strides in exploring the visuality and materiality of these examples. Such studies consider the important roles that changing notions of vision and visuality play in shaping key social, political, and cultural moments in Western and non-Western contexts.[8] Nonetheless, these examples of everyday visual culture’s connections to labor practices remain largely unexplored. In fact, while art historical studies engage with issues of art and labor since the 19th century,[9] studies about quotidian visual and material culture of labor, even amongst art historians, remain few and far between[10] (although exhibitions of this material are on the rise[11]).

Endeavoring to explore this important aspect of labor history, “Envisioning Work” considers how a critical examination of visual and material culture depicting work-place practices and scientific and technological processes, allows for alternative approaches to examining issues of gender, race, and class vis-a-vis labor. In turning to critical analyses of visuals, this blog series endeavors to expand the methods, questions, and insights of art/design history and visual studies to other disciplines/studies, such as history, sociology, anthropology, and archeology in order to better understand the varied/multifaceted dimensions of labor and its histories.

Informed by recent studies that take up examples of visual and material culture in an analysis of labor in a global context,[12] this series seeks to answer how visual culture on labor/work generates a new spatial and mental medium through which shifting and varied concepts, ideologies, affects, and/or sensibilities on production, economy, class struggle, and/or gender are constructed, regulated, navigated, contested, and/or accepted as well as how this material mediates relations between actors, networks, and/or technologies. Thus, this blog series does not aim for an interpretation of the visual as simply an illustration, a “reflection” of a context, or a passive tool of documentation. Rather, the series strives to emphasize the critical dimensions of visual culture and how the structural analyses of it – across media, formats, and practices – can play an important role in interrogating, conceptualizing, communicating, and/or understanding labor-related issues, contexts, and practices.

Figure 3. Yasser Alwan (d. 2022), Sayeda Zaynab building site, 1999. Egypt. Working Lives series. Yasser Alwan’s sudden death in January 2022 was a great loss to the field of photography and saddened anyone whose life he touched. In John Molyneux’s words, Alwan’s photographs “express a profound humanitarian egalitarianism that is rare in the long history of art as a whole and almost unique in the relatively short history of photography” and his work on Egyptian working people “raises a multitude of issues and announces an artistic and political stance”.[13]

This blog series invites contributions from scholars of any discipline who approach visual content (e.g., film, video, photography, printed matter, digital media, and documents/records) as important dimensions in the study of labor/work dynamics. We seek essays that address, respond to, and/or question how a study of visuality/material culture related to labor, its associated practices, and its contexts (e.g., private/public, rural/suburban/urban, and spaces/non-spaces), allow for new ways of seeing, thinking, and shaping our understanding of labor’s dynamics, networks, contexts, or actors across global contexts/historical periods.

For example, contributions may address visual culture in relation to issues of surveillance and control; the commodification and categorization of labor; or the projection and construction of varied narratives on traditional/non-traditional workforces and workplaces (across all sizes, types, and industries). Essays may also consider how examples of visual culture allow for a critical analysis of racial, gender-based, and/or class-related oppression in varied global contexts. Submissions may deal with any geographic region, although we have a special interest in underrepresented regions and/or social groups. Interventions that use visual material to explore broader theoretical and/or methodological concerns – rather than focusing on specific contexts or case studies – are also welcome.

Final contributions must be between 9,000–12,000 characters, with 2–3 images (or embedded media). However, at this preliminary stage, submissions do not need to be finalized. They may also include open-ended questions and theories, with the aim of engaging a wide range of non-specialist readers. In order to speak to the blog’s broad readership, authors are asked to avoid jargon, and, whenever possible, to use hyperlinks instead of footnotes. The series is also open to new takes on or questions about previously published content. We also welcome 100 to 200-word abstracts, along with 1–2 images (or links to other media), from authors who want to inquire about the relevance of their contribution to the series. Please send your submissions to Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri. We would like to acknowledge Georges Khalil’s invaluable feedback and insightful questions, which helped to enrich this essay.

We dedicate this series to the late Donald Quataert (d. 2011) and Rifa‘at Abou-El-Haj (d. 2022), two of Ottoman history’s most formidable scholars whom we had the fortune of knowing/working with during our years as doctoral students at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Whether through their research, thought-provoking courses, generous feedback, or the many conversations we each had with one or both of them well beyond our time at Binghamton, Donald and Rifa‘at, in different ways, played key roles in shaping our views on labor and social history. Their legacies live on in the essence of this blog series, which we hope will contribute a new perspective to the field that they helped to expand, while also addressing Rifa‘at’s perennially provocative question, “where are the people?”


[1] Key sources on labor in the Global South include: Zachary Lockman, ed., Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East: Struggles, Histories, Historiographies, New York: SUNY Press, 1994; Donald Quataert and Erik-Jan Zürcher, eds., Workers and the Working Class in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, 1839–1950, London, New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1995; Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India: The Bengal Jute Industry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; Marcel Van Der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays Toward a Global Labor History, Leiden: Brill, 2008; Frederick Cooper, Thomas C. Holt and Rebecca J. Scott, Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014; Leda Papastefanaki and M. Erdem Kabadayı, eds., Working in Greece and Turkey: A Comparative Labour History from Empires to Nation-States, 1840–1940, New York: Berghahn Books, 2020.

[2] For example, see Fabian van Onzen, Service Workers in the Era of Monopoly Capital, Leiden: Brill, 2022.

[3] For further discussions on the precarity and future imaginaries of work, see Aléssandro Gandini, Zeitgeist Nostalgia: On Populism, Work and the ‘Good Life’, Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2020.

[4] In the words of Byung-Chul Han. See, Han, Hyperculture: Culture and Globalisation, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2022.

[5] For some sources on this, see Sheldon Pollock, “Philology in Three Dimensions”, Postmedieval: a Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 5/4, 2014, 398–413; Laura Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast”, The American Historical Review 121/2, 2016, 377–402; Sarah Neville, “Rethinking Scholarly Commentary in the Age of Google”, Textual Cultures 12/1, 2019, 1–26.

[6] Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable”, 377.

[7] The notion was first introduced by Friedrich Neitzche, as discussed in Pollock “Philology”, 400.

[8] Recent studies include: Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, “Introduction: Photographs as Objects”, in: Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hard (eds.), Photographs Object Histories: On the Materiality of Images, London: Routledge, 2004, 1–15; Christiane Gruber and Sune Haugbolle, Visual Culture in the Modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the Image, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013; Zeynep Çelik and Edhem Eldem, eds., Camera Ottomana: Photography and Ottoman Modernity, 1840–1914, Istanbul: Koç University Press, 2015; Hala Auji, “Printed Images in Flux: Examining Scientific Engravings in Nineteenth-Century Arabic Periodicals”, in: Andreas Beck, Nicola Kaminski, Volker Mergenthaler and Jens Ruchatz (eds.), Visual Design The Periodical Page as a Designed Surface, Hannover: Wehrhahn Verlag, 2019, 119–136; Ahmet E. Ersoy, “History as You Go Mobility, Photography, and the Visibility of the Past in Late Ottoman Print Space”, in: Matthew C. Potter (ed.), Representing the Past in the Art of the Long Nineteenth Century: Historicism, Postmodernism, and Internationalism, London: Routledge, 2021.

[9] Tim F. Barringer, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005; Ruth E. Iskin, Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Noah Horowitz, Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013; Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics, Leiden: Brill, 2015; Dave Beech, Art and Labour: On the Hostility to Handicraft, Aesthetic Labour and the Politics of Work in Art, Leiden: Brill, 2020.

[10] For example, James A. Schmiechen, “Reconsidering the Factory, Art-Labor, and the Schools of Design in Nineteenth-Century Britain”, Design Issues 6/2, 1990, 58–69; Elspeth H. Brown, The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884–1929, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005; John Ott, “Graphic Consciousness: The Visual Cultures of Integrated Industrial Unions at Midcentury”, American Quarterly 66/4, 2014, 883–917.

[11] For a series of online exhibitions that look at the visual and material cultures of global workplaces, see “Workplaces: Pasts and Presents”.

[12] For instance, see Nahla Nassar, “Dar al-Kiswa al-Sharifa. Administration and Production”, in: Venetia Porter and Liana Saif (eds.), The Hajj: Collected Essays, London: British Museum, 2013, 175–83. See the images that Nassar discusses in her essay. See also, Kevin Coleman, “Photographs of a Prayer: The (Neglected) Visual Archive and Latin American Labor History”, Hispanic American Historical Review 95/3, 2015, 459–492.

[13] John Molyneux, “The Liberty of Appearing: the Photographs of Yasser Alwan”, 4 Nov. 2008.

Citation: Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri, Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/34735

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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