Wired to Serve: Making Essential Workers Visible

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Occupational folklife reveals the customs, traditions, lingo, and superstitions of the job and often brings visibility to those who labor behind the scenes or in fields too often unacknowledged or unappreciated. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new light to the workers who keep our society going even in the most challenging of times. These are the workers Tucson photographer Kathleen Dreier is honoring in a new project, “COVID-19 and Tucson Front Line Workers.”  When the coronavirus pandemic called for stay-at-home measures, Dreier lost the bulk of her income photographing portraits and events. Seeking to serve her community, she began photographing Tucson’s “essential workers” — medical staff, trash collectors, fabricators of protective gear, pharmacists, store clerks, janitors, mail carriers, volunteers, and more. She connects with people via word of mouth or social media, photographs from a safe distance outside, and keeps the encounter to 10 minutes or less. She charges her subjects nothing and gifts them digital copies of the images. BorderLore‘s Kimi Eisele asked Dreier about the project in an email interview, which we share here along with a selection of her portraits. 

BorderLore: You were a social worker for 36 years. In what ways did that prepare you for this project?

Kathleen Dreier: I worked mostly in Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services in California, Alaska, Colorado, and Arizona. I liken it to walking on the dark side of life for 36 years, attempting to assist children, families and adults during the worst parts of their lives. I’ve had my life threatened more than once. I’ve been exposed to lice, maggots, abject filth, body decay. I was almost trapped in a home with abusers. I’ve seen battered bodies and children on ventilators near death from beatings. I’ve found elders on their floor in urgent need of medical attention. I’ve removed hundreds of kids from their parents. I’ve seen failed adoptions and reunification, tried to help teenagers who spent their whole lives in the foster care system deal with severe abandonment and emotional damage. Most of the time, I navigated this hell as a single mother, while working at least one other job. I spent these years often with vicarious trauma from what I was witnessing daily. I promised myself that I would never close my heart to the pain and suffering of other people. I used my own hardships to fuel my compassion for others. All of that has helped me become hyper-aware of the complex dynamics that make up a person’s life.

BL: What are some of the commonalities you’re finding in the experiences or faces or stories of those you are photographing?

Kathleen Dreier

KD: The main commonality is that every front line worker and first responder I have photographed has a huge heart and commitment to serve others. More than one has said, “I signed up for this.” Frontline workers know the risks they are taking but are committed to trying to make life better for the people they serve. They want their clients to know they are not alone and that help is available. Theirs is a life of service.

BL: What has this moment, and your particular way of meeting it, revealed to you about the idea of “work”?

KD: It is clearer to me than ever that I have work to do no matter whether or not I’m paid for it. I, too, am wired to serve. Years ago, I took a workshop with a leading photographer who said doing photography projects during periods of unpaid assignments was how to be continually inspired, creative, and learning. I took that advice to heart. It’s how I did my first photography book, Bus Stop Dreams in 2013-2014. My paying photography clients are in the thick of the pandemic just like I am. The best thing that I can do for them is to maintain communication, letting know I am here for them when they are ready, but to do so in a kind and spacious way, not demanding or desperate. Photographing front line workers in Tucson at this moment has given me focus, letting me offer my energy, talents, and a public platform.

I have a soft heart for front line workers because of my background. And like everyone else, I’m figuring out how to earn a living during this time. The pandemic has impacted my ability to do event photography, my primary source of income. I trust that the answer will come to me eventually. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can to serve my Tucson community. I’m also learning how to work in a balanced way so that I’m not sacrificing my own well-being. I keep myself “in check” so that I have ample time to rest and considering my next steps, not only with this project but with my overall portrait and event photography business.

BL: All the photographs are moving, and people’s statements reveal so much about care and kindness and sense of moral duty. Is there one shoot that’s particularly moved you?

KD: To date, I have photographed about 50 people. Each one makes an impression on me in some way. When I read their statements, my heart is blown open even more. Each of their stories is a thread of the fabric that makes up our Tucson community. Some I keep thinking about are these: The director of an assisted living home has been living on site for weeks, away from his family, to assure that his residents are properly cared for and to keep his family safe. Imagine that level of personal sacrifice. A registered nurse from a correctional facility recognizes her role is as much giving emotional support to the inmates as treating their medical issues. She sees them as human beings, rather than criminals, and knows that since visits with loved ones have been stopped, she is their lifeline to the outside world. Multiple social workers share they are deeply concerned about the increasing likelihood of child abuse. Since school is out, children have no safe place to disclose what’s happening. These are only three examples. I could make a statement about each person I have photographed. Front line workers in all areas are deeply committed to our community.


The photos below represent a small selection from Dreier’s growing body of images. Captions have been edited and excerpted from their original. To view all of Dreier’s images in this series, visit the project’s Facebook Page. If you are a front lines worker and wish to be photographed, contact Kathleen Dreier.

Covid19 & Tucson Front Line Workers

As a hospice nurse, a big part of my job is to be able to hold a patient’s hand, smile at them, make sure their symptoms are under control and overall be there for them in their last moments, be it months, weeks or minutes. This situation has made that almost non-existent. The majority of my patients are in care homes or large facilities. As the fear rose with the pandemic, facilities started closing down visits. First to families and then to outside agencies. Patients are visiting families thru windows, video messaging and phone calls. Hospice and home care nurses, social workers, and chaplains are now doing the same. Our home health aides are no longer visiting either.

These are essential visits also as they provide companionship and personal care. I am managing symptoms via phone call or video, whichever I can do. This in turn is increasing work for the already tired facility staff. Hospice is such a team where we all work together with those facility staff to provide the best care. I am having to take time out of their already busy day to get the information I need. This has been devastating for all of us. We are in this line of work because it is who we are. It is a passion and our hearts are all in. So, it feels like a part of our hearts are being torn. The patients not only lost the ability to see families in person, but they have lost the touch of many of us.

We also are dealing with looming shortages of PPE like the rest of the country. We have volunteers making us masks, which we sometimes wear over the paper mask to have more protection. In visits I even find myself getting the physical assessment done as quickly as possible so as not to make my patients uneasy as I know they are as worried as I am about this virus. Overall, I want to say to people that think this isn’t real or as serious as they say, look around. Talk to a medical person, any of them. Ask them the effect this is having and take this seriously. Stay home so people can have their families back.

– Kim Switzer, RNBSN, Hospice Case Manager

Advocates are currently working—very busily—from their own homes. Crisis lines stay steady and though it may be too soon to gauge the long term affects across the board for survivors, I have personally experienced an impact on the need for our services through an increase in calls for both our crisis-line as well as our Sexual Assault Response Services (SARS). Survivors are not able to do office walk-ins with SACASA at this time, but we do provide crisis line support and opportunities for engagement with an advocate face to face via Zoom conferencing. Intakes for therapy also continue to be conducted via phone. Although our therapy group services have been temporarily suspended, we are hoping to implement groups online in the near future. Perhaps the most intensive crisis service we provide is that of our direct hospital response. Advocates at this time are still responding to local hospitals in Tucson, with Tucson Medical Center being our primary “house” for conducting medical forensic exams. Contingency plans have been put in place by our SACASA team and CODAC leadership for an alternate location for SARS should it be unsafe or inappropriate for advocates to continue responding to the hospitals.

Like many others, I am also utilizing technology to stay connected with close friends and family. In CODAC’s work culture and social services alike, there is a great emphasis on the importance of self-care. I am learning especially during this difficult time how important it is to strive for a balance in our physical and mental wellness, finding creative ways to nourish those parts of ourselves. As a by-product, I hope to be able to demonstrate by example that lifestyle to all our survivors and members.

-Mara Katrina Capati, Crisis Advocate with the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault, a division of non-profit, CODAC Health, Recovery & Wellness, Inc.

I supervise janitorial crews and provide, maintain, and purchase the tools necessary for the various other crews need to get their jobs done. We primarily serve the homeless and underemployed, but we will also serve people that walk in off the street. Unfortunately, due to the virus our interaction with our clients has been minimized because we are asking them to stay home and not come in the office and we will call them if we have a job for them. This is not optimal because speaking on the phone with an individual leaves a great deal to be desired as far as communication is concerned. But we do what we must to protect the clients and our staff. Our people are in a poverty situation and every minute of every day is spent by them dealing with a survival condition. Many are homeless and are looking for food, a place to stay overnight, where to get medical help for injuries suffered, and trying to keep their heads above the waterline. Some are in poverty, working two jobs just to stay barely afloat, trying to put food on the table and feed the kids, gas in car or bus fare to get to one of their jobs. Some are in such extreme poverty they send one kid to school with shoes on and the other kid to school the next day with the same shoes on. I don’t think many of them think about the COVID-19. If they do the necessary things to keep themselves safe, it is probably minimal.

-Ron Austin, Lead Job Coach, Primavera Works

I am thankful I have an “essential” job as a flight nurse, but what is my job costing me? Worry, social isolation, high risk for getting sick myself, putting myself out of work and adding the hospital burdens? I get called to transport a possible Covid-19 patient, so I have to gown up, goggle up, glove up and mask up to protect myself. If I’m hydrated enough, I will tolerate the rubber suit in a hot helicopter for up to an hour. But how protected can one actually be in a cramped space the size of my hallway closet? I am anxious to hear if that patient was positive or negative, but the receiving facility will not release that information citing HIPPA. I get to experience this with EVERY possible Covid-19 patient I transport. Have I deconned the helicopter safely and thoroughly? I understand these patients need to get to higher levels of care, but if I’ve potentially been exposed, how can I be expected to continue to work until I know for sure I have not been exposed? Now I may have contaminated my entire base putting all of us in jeopardy, but someone has to do this job and if I am not sick, I suppose taking my temp twice a day will have to suffice for now. Why don’t people get the importance of staying home? What is it going to take to get people to take all this more seriously?

-Sara Richard Lima, RN, BSN, CCRN

I am currently a Canine Enrichment Specialist at The Humane Society of Southern Arizona and my wife is currently working from home, 7 months pregnant with our first child. My clients are the dogs that came to HSSA for whatever reason. Covid-19 has prevented the public from coming in and seeing the dogs in our care, but I have to say that it’s not stopping adopters. The community has responded wonderfully to our plea for help, and we have had fosters step up and folks suddenly with enough time for a dog are scheduling appointments to see our dogs and adopt. I see my dogs feeling more at ease and less on edge, as they know they are getting out more and get to see people more often. Though Covid-19 has brought out a lot of the uglier side of society, I have seen it bring out a lot of beautiful also. People give up on these wonderful animals so quickly, and I made it my personal mission to make sure that these animals don’t lose hope. We become what they rely on during tough times like now, and we give them the feeling of humanity and companionship that is missing in their life. Covid-19 is scary, but it doesn’t mean my mission stops. I am needed now more than ever.

-Stephen Szostek, Canine Enrichment Specialist, Humane Society of Southern Arizona

The mask that protects me from this virus is as suffocating as my fear of the virus. I feel isolated even as I am out in the world and doing my normal routine. Those of us who are “essential workers” are weary and afraid. Our emotional labor has increased greatly because people are so tense and scared. We have to act like everything is normal, offering calmness and confidence even as we monitor every single cough and ache for signs of COVID-19. Most of my family and friends are self-quarantining, which makes me feel separated from the collective experience. While I am happy I live alone, so I don’t risk infecting others, the isolation adds to my stress. Part of me is so grateful for my job, co-workers, and my health, and another part of me wants to hide at home from everything that is happening. But like many others, I find the strength to keep up and do my job so others can get the help they need.

-Alica McKenna Johnson, Guest Services Relations at a radiology office

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