Picturing labor: A visual ethnography of the coal mine labor process

Eric Margolis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Following Marx, Harry Braverman argued that it is not the technical nature of the machine that creates alienation but “invisible” social divisions of labor which produced and control machinery and the labor process. This paper marshals primary source material from a large visual ethnographic study of retired miners, juxtaposing photographs and oral histories in an analysis of coal mining. Photographs of the mining process, which represent the technological processes and divisions of labor are examined alongside coal miners’ accounts of the labor process which include discussions of social relationships including alienation and exploitation. In life, the social and technological relations of labor were inseparable, but only the technological could be photographed. I conclude that photography constitutes an operationalized language incapable of expressing alienation or negation, potential, irrationality, alternative meanings, and so on. This has profound implications in a world where photographic images mediate so much of our experience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-35
Number of pages31
JournalVisual Sociology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Anthropology


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