"Chapel Hill Works," a photo documentary exhibit, opened Feb. 1 at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The exhibit will be available for viewing through the end of the month.
The exhibit is composed of 15 large-scale photographs of Town employees working, along with a slideshow of 118 portraits, text panels and a video documentary about the project.
The project began in 2015 and was delayed multiple times due to COVID-19. It aims to document and celebrate the efforts of the Chapel Hill employees who help make the town a good place to live.
Michael Schwalbe, a professor at N.C. State University and a documentary photographer, created the project with the goal of bringing some favorable attention and community appreciation to the public employees.
“I’ve always had the urge to document what's going on in the community around us, in particular the things that are important but people don't pay a lot of attention to,” he said.
Schwalbe said some Town workers, like bus drivers and trash collectors, are highly visible, but the workers who are rarely seen by the public — including include storm water management workers and those who repair library books — intrigued him.
He said the workers who were photographed for this project are often taken for granted, and he hopes this exhibit is a chance to change that.
“The Town workers photographed in this project are essential,” Schwalbe said. “We couldn't have a place to live like Chapel Hill without these people and the work they do.”
One of Schwalbe’s goals for the project was to show residents visually where their tax dollars go. He said the exhibit can make viewers better community members when they understand the people who are dedicating their lives to Chapel Hill.
Sarah Wagner, project liaison and library experiences specialist at CHPL, said the exhibit opens a lens, giving people an idea of all the work that goes into the Town.
“A lot of the work is unseen, or things that go on behind the scenes or sometimes the things that go on that we see all the time, but maybe we don't really appreciate,” Wagner said.
As a Town employee herself, she said she had a good grasp of what went on in Chapel Hill, but this project taught her just how large and diverse the community is. Wagner also said she learned was how much pride each staff person takes in their job.
“A lot of us really feel really strongly about the work we do and really enjoy and love that we are a part of our community,” she said.
Ryan Chamberlain, digital media lab coordinator for CHPL, is one Town employee featured in the exhibit. He said the project taught him about the diversity of people working for the community, the variety of jobs and the commitment workers have to the town.
“It’s been worked on for a long time,” he said. “Seeing it fresh again, it kind of gives me an appreciation for how long a lot of these people have been with the Town and how dedicated we are to the work that we do.”
Chamberlain said it was neat to see the work and services that are provided on a daily basis to the community being celebrated.
“One emotion I felt was proud,” he said. “I’m proud of the work we do for the community.”
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