“Is it moral to pay people less than what we know they need to live?”: Chase Castor photographs the Fight for $15
Chase has been documenting Kansas City residents’ fight to raise the minimum wage in the US. Compelled to learn about the movement, he’s learned a fair bit about photography in the process too.
- Ruby Boddington
- 16 December 2021
“It’s a cliche,” says Kansas City-based photographer Chase Castor, “but a picture gives a face to an issue; it kind of forces the viewer to reckon with the morality or fairness of the person in the photo’s situation.” It’s this that draws Chase to photojournalism and documenting social justice movements, namely, the Fight for $15, an American political movement advocating for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 per hour. His series of the same name began back in 2016 and confronts viewers with the harsh reality of trying to get by on a wage that doesn’t cover your basic needs.
Chase is a huge fan of street photography, explaining how it’s not only his favourite work to look at but that he treasures “every chance I get to go out and photograph this way”. Living in Kansas City, though, his opportunities to get up close and personal with the inhabitants of his city are far and few between as most travel around by car. “I have to wait for a festival or weekend event to make street pictures,” he explains, which is how he found himself at a rally in 2016, organised by a group called Stand UP K.C – it organises activity related to the Fight for $15 in the area. At the protest, “folks trained in civil disobedience participated in a sit-in blocking the entrance to a McDonald’s,” Chase recalls. “All of those participants were arrested that night.”
The stories Chase heard that night were a revelation to him. And he began documenting the group at further protests and rallies, learning more about their plight and becoming ever-invested in the subject in turn. “I’ve started referring to the project as ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Labor’,” he says. “[The workers] are saints struggling up against massive brutal corporations backed by a society that says if they worked harder, they wouldn’t be in this situation.” Put simply though, as Chase outlines, “MIT says the living wage in the US should be $16.54, over two times the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. These workers aren’t asking for something radical; they just want the compensation the real world requires to survive. How can an owner or exec deny their employees the means to survive?”
Chase is drawn to imagery that fills the frame, that has layers and sub-framing – “like the back of a cereal box, chaotic and engaging.” So, initially, he spent most of his time creating imagery packed full of action, observed during protests. But as he got to know those involved in the struggle more, he realised “their protests and actions were just one side of things; I needed to give a glimpse into how brutal it is to live on minimum wage,” and so he “shifted toward pursuing quieter, more intimate, and personal pictures of the workers.”
This narrative is particularly evident in Chase’s documentation of Nathan Wash, one of the protesters who was arrested at that very first rally that Chase attended. In his 60s, Nathan is an Army veteran and when Chase met him, was working two jobs totalling 60 hours a week. He lived in a basement apartment and struggled to get by on his earnings, despite his day starting at 4am and ending at 10pm. Chase tells us about Nathan and how his story moved him: “Nathan is quiet and kind, a reliable employee at McDonald’s, and a hard worker. He studies labour movements of the past and is excited to engage in conversation about these movements. I’ve seen Mr Wash at nearly every Fight for $15 rally since that first night when he was arrested in front of McDonald’s in 2016. I spoke to him after the arrest; he was proud of his civil disobedience and honoured to share a legacy with the workers from every labour movement before and after his time.”
This sentiment and pride are then expressed through both the imagery Chase makes and the way he talks about it. Not content with simply snapping and leaving, he has spent time with those depicted, getting to know the ins and outs of their lives. “I met with workers at 4am getting ready for a shift, on the bus with a worker who spends three hours commuting for each shift, and in the home of a mother and her two daughters where the electricity had been turned off because other bills took priority. Mum was helping her oldest with their homework bundled in coats on the front porch before the sun went down,” he recalls. Nearing the five-year mark of the project, he’s clearly invested in the Fight for $15 and, while he continues to take photos, the project has ballooned into something much bigger for him. Through making the work, he tells It’s Nice That, he’s learned the importance of honouring the people he photographs. “They aren’t subjects; they are more significant than the best picture I can make of them,” he says. “They are the individual more than they are my pictures. I was tempted to value the image I made of the person more than the person. The more time I spent with these folks, the more my drive to make ‘powerful’ pictures faded into just trying to do their story justice.” It’s a topic we discussed with American photographer Stacy Kranitz back in 2019, so it’s no surprise to hear that Chase cites her as a key influence on his work. “She is focused on the subcultures and ‘every person’ in her home in Appalachia,” Chase says. “I try to focus on documenting the people in my home region like this too.”
Reflecting on the still-in-progress work, Chase says he hopes what he’s made thus far softens viewers’ hearts “to the plight of the underpaid worker” and promotes them to question “is it moral to pay people less than what we know they need to live?”
GalleryChase Castor: Fight for $15 (Copyright © Chase Castor, 2021)
Chase Castor: Fight for $15 (Copyright © Chase Castor, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.