Newhouse alumna photographs America’s essential workers

By Adrianne Morales

June 1, 2020

Photographer Maranie Staab G’20 goes state to state to capture the people on the front lines of the pandemic

Maranie Rae Staab G'20 has been traveling the country since April, documenting the people who have been deemed "essential workers" during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work, titled “(In)dispensable: Who is essential in America?”, is being presented as a virtual exhibition by ArtRage Gallery through June 5.

Staab’s project is self-initiated and self-funded. “If I waited for an assignment or for somebody to tell me to do something, I wouldn’t have really ever done anything in my life,” she says. “I’ve never done a project that has really felt this right.”

Staab says the idea came from a conversation with her father.

“He works at a home improvement store in the paint department, and when this all happened, he was deemed essential. And he sells paint,” says Staab. “He doesn’t make enough money, in my mind, to be told he should be working in conditions that are arguably dangerous.”

Even as her father was asked to continue working, Staab says, he was not offered hazard pay. “That started me doing a lot of research,” she says. “The [questions] I wanted to answer [were], ‘Who do we deem essential in this country?’ and ‘What does that look like as far as the rules at the jobs they are filling?’ and ‘What are their experiences?’’’ Staab also wanted to explore how the answers to those questions varied in different parts of the country.

Staab says the recent New York Times front page, “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, an Incalculable Loss,” is a good example of what her project is meant to examine. “One hundred thousand people die. That sounds big, but… our brains don’t really know what to do with that number. But if I show you 100,000 names, it’s more powerful.”

Staab hopes that by asking her audience to consider the names and faces of those she photographs—like Dwight, a hotel maintenance worker in North Carolina—those people’s lives will resonate more. “There is a certain part of the population that would, and that does, look down on these individuals,” says Staab. “[Dwight] was not educated, but he was genuinely kind and grateful for the work that he had.”

Dwight’s advice to “be good to people” was profound to Staab. “He had every reason that he could’ve been resentful, but he wasn’t. He was the opposite of that,” she says.

Staab says her subjects have been grateful that someone was willing to listen to them. When she spoke to a security guard in Birmingham, the woman started crying.

"She was like 50-something, maybe 60, and no one had asked her,” she says. “Her husband was sick and she was working and just trying to hold things together. So the personal connection with people—it’s the reason I’m going to continue this project.”

Staab has found most of her subjects through social media, research and personal connections, but the stories she found by happenstance have been the most memorable, she says.

“I ran out of gas, which is embarrassing to say, in the middle of nowhere in Colorado,” she says. “The man that helped me out was an oil field worker and I ended up having a conversation with him on the side of the road about his work.”

Securing accommodations has also been a challenge for Staab. During her travels, she has slept in a tent, her car, a motel and a friend’s extra room.

“The curveball with all of this is the social distancing. Even in places where I have friends, I was doing this all as responsibly as I possibly could,” she says. “By traveling, I am potentially endangering others, so all interviews were done from a distance, all photographs were done from a distance. I was wearing a mask at all times. I traveled by myself. I stayed by myself.”

So far, Staab has covered 6,075 miles and 12 states while abiding by CDC guidelines and ensuring the health of herself and those with whom she has spoken. She plans to stay on the road for another month or two.

“It just feels important to be documenting our country right now,” she says. “We’re in a time that I’ve never experienced and that, arguably, most people alive have probably never experienced.”

Adrianne Morales is a senior in the broadcast and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.