The value of work, particularly that of migrant workers who have helped build Canada, have been the focus of Vince Pietropaolo’s lens over the years. Photo by Vince Pietropaolo
  • May 18, 2023

The value of work, if it goes beyond money, economics and the labour market, is hard to put into words. So, Vince Pietropaolo has spent half a century putting it into pictures.

Beginning with a collection of black and white images of Italian immigrant life in Toronto in the 1970s, which culminated in the book Not Paved With Gold, through 30 years of documenting the lives of migrant farm workers for a book called Harvest Pilgrims, to a millennium project called Canadians at Work, and a dozen other projects that recorded the lives of the disabled, the poor, the forgotten and the immigrant, Pietropaolo has inscribed the invisible lives of ordinary people in the slow, careful work of photojournalism.

At 71, Pietropaolo is suddenly being celebrated in the world of photography and beyond. In Mexico, the photo agency and magazine Cuartoscuro is recognizing his work on migrant workers. Western University historian and academic librarian Jason Dyck has just published a major paper on Pietropaolo’s work in the journal Latin America Made in Canada. Cormorant Books is launching Pietropaolo’s Toronto as Community, 50 Years of Photographs on March 17. At the same time Pietropaolo’s work is on display at Toronto’s Steelworker’s Hall as part of the MayWorks Festival of Working People in the Arts. There’s another exhibition, “Diversity and Community, 50 Years of Photography,” at the James Rottman Fine Art Gallery. The Toronto as Community book launch and accompanying gallery show at the Italian Institute is part of the ScotiaBank Contact Photography Festival.

It took 50 years for Pietropaolo to gain overnight sensation status, but in the world of photography people have long known his work.

“He is a passionate chronicler of the immigrant experience in Canada,” said Stephen Bulger, owner of the Bulger Gallery. “Without his photographs, many of the people who have come to this country and built it into what it is would have been faceless and forgotten. As a witness to their work, we have (in Pietropaolo’s photographs) a fuller understanding about who built Canada.”

Growing up an Italian immigrant in Toronto, Pietropaolo has always understood work to be central to life. As a young man attending weddings and community events, he noted how Italian men greeted one another.

“If they hadn’t seen each other for a while maybe, they would say, ‘Hey, Giovanni, are you
working?’ ” he recalled.

Questions about family, health and so on would follow, but work came first.

“It was important to get a job. It was important to have work. And if you didn’t have work, it was a catastrophe. The idea of work was totally ingrained into me.”

As soon as he got his first camera, Pietropaolo was photographing workers — in part because they were his family.

“I grew up in a family, in a working class family of immigrants, and the subject of work was primary and central, at the kitchen table all the time,” he said.

The immigrant son studied hard, worked hard and landed a good job at City Hall as a city planner. But as he and his wife were raising three children, Pietropaolo was often out at street festivals, religious processions and just walking through immigrant neighbourhoods with his camera. Finally, at the age of 40, he made his passion into his full-time job. The first years were lean, “But after a couple of years, a few years, I started building up clients,” he said.

Unions recognized the value of what Pietropaolo was doing and hired him often. The same was true for immigrant settlement organizations, social work agencies and community groups. Whatever the assignment, he always circled back to photographing workers and their lives on the job.

“Half of our lives, or a third of our lives, are spent at work — if you’re lucky enough to have work, right?”

Pietropaolo’s record of the invisible lives of migrant farm workers fascinated Western’s Dyck. As a young man from St. Catharine’s, Ont., Dyck worked his way through university at southern Ontario greenhouses — working beside Mexican, Jamaican and Guatemalan farm hands. Harvest Pilgrims tells a story the academic had absorbed into his bones.

“It’s work that’s so important that it needs to be seen in a larger context,” Dyck said. “There’s a real sense that they (migrant workers) are just invisible to society.”

Though Pietropaolo’s father once worked on an Ontario tobacco farm, the photographer began his work on Harvest Pilgrims unaware of how central migrant labour is to Canada’s food supply.

“I only stumbled into migrant workers by accident, and I wondered who they were,” Pietropaolo said. “I knew about migrant workers in Europe and I knew about migrant workers in the United States, but I never thought there were migrant workers in Ontario. They were totally invisible because they stayed on the farm all day.”

A man riding a bicycle along a country road on Friday evening, heading to town to do some grocery shopping, was never a large enough presence to attract the attention of Canadians. But once Pietropaolo learned who these men were, he had to pursue the story — all the way back to their hometowns in Mexico.

“I became fascinated by the fact that we have a foreign work force in a country as rich as Canada,” he said. “I called my farm worker book Harvest Pilgrims because I felt that they were like pilgrims going to the same spot year after year — the same farm, the very same farm for many, many years. It was like an annual pilgrimage to a work site.”

Back in the city, Pietropaolo photographed workers on strike and protesting government policy. He found these processions in the street echoed in the Good Friday processions he photographed along College Street through Toronto’s Little Italy. The people who carried placards one day carried crosses the next.

“There’s all this religious life in the city that doesn’t get talked about in the media,” Pietropaolo said. “Except sometimes in a very superficial way.”

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