How I Got the Photo – Melissa Renwick (picture story)

2016 NPOY PICTURE STORY FEATURE, Finalist – Former Employees of the General Electric Plant in Peterborough, Ontario. (Melissa Renwick / Toronto Star)

For months, the Toronto Star’s work and wealth reporter, Sara Mojtehedzadeh, and I traveled between Toronto and Peterborough to document a group of former General Electric (GE) workers who had fallen ill from what they claimed to be prolonged exposure to a range of human carcinogens and toxic chemicals at their place of work.

Over countless trips and cups of tea, Sara and I sat in living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms as a growing number of former workers and their family members opened their doors to us and laid their hearts out on the table.

What struck us was that although the former workers blamed the plant for their illnesses, they maintained a certain level of loyalty towards GE. For some, it was a place where they first fell in love and for others it offered a good living wage despite not having a high school education. It was a complex story of love and loss, resiliency, strength and a connection to the past that shaped a city’s future.

One evening over a meal with Jim Dufresne, who had worked at GE for 42 years, he shared his struggle to get close to people. As a photographer, I had to work through that to build a trusting relationship so that I could document these intimate moments.

“Been to 10 or 11 funerals this year and the year isn’t over,” Dufresne said.  It was a moment that stayed with me because it encapsulated many of the worker’s fears – that their legacy would die with them and that their claims would never be heard.

For decades, blue collar workers like Jim were Ontario’s economic backbone, building an economy that would be key to our prosperity as a province. Yet their stories are often untold. As journalists, we wanted to give them the platform and voice they deserved.

 

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