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Issue #1474      29 September 2010

Wolfgang Sievers and The Dignity of Labour

It was a more thought-provoking weekend than usual – bookended by a protest and an exhibition. Not much connection you would think. A union struggle at a chicken-processing factory and a display of black and white photographs launched in plush surroundings with wine and finger food being passed around. But the themes of the world of work, the world at war and the plight of refugees over the years kept coming to the fore, reminding me that progress towards a planet at peace and a society without exploitation has been far too slow.

(Photo: Bob Briton)

Anyuon Mabior came to Australia from Sudan. He worked at a poultry processing plant until he was dismissed after he complained to the management about an email exchanged by supervisory staff (see Lilydale – free-range chickens, caged workers).

Most of the workers at the Adelaide plant are recent immigrants to Australia. A good number of them have come here seeking shelter form wars unleashed by the US and other powers seeking to shore up their geopolitical and economic standing or from countries otherwise not favoured by the process known as “globalisation”. Anyuon hasn’t come all this way to be pushed around in his new home. If progress towards an age of justice has been too slow, it’s not the fault of people like Anyuon.

Standing outside the factory, the protestors would every now and then be confronted by a sickly, rotten smell from inside – a reminder that, even if society (or the market) deems that it must be done, a lot of work is still tough and unpleasant. This world of work would remain out of sight and out of mind if it weren’t for some extraordinary individuals who set out to record it.

Among the more famous to do this in Australia was Wolfgang Sievers. The exhibition of photographs I was referring to was opened on Sunday by Greg Mackie, a former Adelaide City councillor and ongoing energetic promoter of the arts in South Australia. It is called The Dignity of Labour and is made up of some of the shots left by the photographer, just prior to his death in 2007, to human rights lawyer Julian Burnside on the condition that they be used to further the cause of peace and human rights. That’s how the Graham F Smith Peace Trust came to be exhibiting and selling the works.

The shots are fascinating in their own right but I wonder how much of the impact they made on me was because of what I had found out about Sievers himself. He came to Australia fleeing persecution by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. He was a socialist with a Jewish background on his mother’s side. Two shots from those times depicting the poverty of his original homeland contrast with the industrial optimism expressed in the Australian images. Quotes scrolling over an electronic panel at the Hawke Centre venue gave viewers an insight into his thinking about his art:

“I knew a lot of photographers are just photographers, but to me this profession is also about not forgetting where I come from and what is happening in the world.”

And again:

“I, Wolfgang Sievers: victim of Nazi persecution, prisoner of the Gestapo, volunteer of the AIF and RAAF 1939, volunteer Australian Army 1942-1945.”

He never waned in his support for the victims of the planet’s thugs, bullies and exploiters. A caption records his objection to the war in Vietnam and the grotesque lottery that selected conscripts to go and fight the people of that country. He also recorded his debt of gratitude to his parents:

“Never forgetting what I owe my parents; justice and tolerance of all people whatever colour or faith, to help people, archaeology and arts, reading, classical music, loving the beautiful world man has not yet been able to destroy, objector to all warmongers …”

I was predisposed to like these photographs. They showed workers dwarfed by their own creations. Two of those have been reproduced many times – one showing a white-coated technician measuring between two massive cogs bound for the mining industry and the other a worker guiding a huge roll of paper onto a stack of similarly gigantic rolls. This isn’t so much the workplace of grime-caked anterooms to hell but where workers create works of industrial art on a huge scale, revealing the tremendous creative power of their hand and brain.

The shining chemical plants and stacks of extruded aluminium carry that same message of creative potential. Sievers was a student of the masters and their use of light. He learned well. As Greg Mackie pointed out, he also absorbed the Bauhaus movement’s love of simplicity of line and the optimism of socialist realism.

The works are undoubtedly optimistic about the power of workers to transform the world for the better. For that reason the impact on the admirers of the works was interesting and contradictory. Many were old enough to remember the years of post-war boom and the industrialisation of the Australian economy. Shots of skilled workers and their products led several to observe “we used to have all those skills in this country”.

There is something bittersweet about celebrating this record of Australian workers building the basis of the country’s (still unevenly shared) prosperity at a time when manufacturing industries are closing their gates and moving offshore. What will the Wolfgang Sievers’ of future generations be capturing from our world of work? No doubt they will find a way to distil that spirit of creativity that combines uniquely with the striving for justice in the working people across the globe. 

Next article – Roll back the corporate agenda

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