Construction photographer captures family’s legacy in images

Photographer Tara Garner officially started Under Construction Photography in 2015, but the seed was planted much earlier in her life. FUEL had a chance to talk to her about her and her family’s background in the construction industry and the chain of events that put her behind the camera, documenting real workers on the job.

FUEL: So you grew up in Simi Valley, California?

Tara Garner: I did. My parents both graduated from the same high school my brothers and I attended. My parents actually met at that school. They both came from other places: my mom from Buffalo and my dad from Alton, Illinois.

FUEL: You’re the daughter (and granddaughter) of ironworkers, right? What was that like?

TG: Yes. My two older brothers are fourth-generation ironworkers, my dad was third, grandfather—second, my great grandfather—first. He was from Alton, Illinois, but he worked in Chicago. That was back in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 50s, my grandfather moved to LA.

My dad had a friend who “went in a hole” and broke his back. My dad showed up at his house with three thousand dollars and put it in his freezer.

My father was very involved in Local 433 (for structural ironworkers in Los Angeles and Las Vegas), as was my uncle. My dad got involved in the politics at his local in the 1980s. He went from the executive board of Local 433 to business agent, then president, and then he was elected to the top position in his union. Finally, he put on his tool belt again in 2006 and went back to work. But then he retired, and he died shortly thereafter.

FUEL: Did his career have a big impact on your childhood?

TG: Yes. I was always around the industry, from birth. We were at every picnic, every rally, every election. I watched when my dad was an ironworker, working long hours and coming home very dirty and tired. Then I watched him become more and more involved politically for the greater good of his union. As the head person in charge of that local, his responsibilities were enormous.

The union is like a brotherhood. During hard times in the 80s and 90s, work was tough, and it was feast or famine. That really united everyone. There was a known clique of guys among the ironworkers called The Valley Boys. My dad had a friend who “went in a hole” [how ironworkers term falling] and broke his back. My dad showed up at his house with three thousand dollars and put it in his freezer. They took care of each other.

Another time, there was a big accident in LA. Two brothers working together both died. The Golden brothers. My dad and his colleagues rushed to the job site to try to pull those men out from under the iron that had collapsed. In the 80s, safety wasn’t what it is now—you didn’t have to be tied off like you do today.

We went to a lot of funerals. There was a lot of hardship in general during those decades, but that’s also what built the camaraderie.

FUEL: What was your first involvement in construction, professionally?

TG: I worked in the office for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and was a member of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 537 for 10.5 years.

In 2011, IBEW had over a thousand employees out of work, yet we had all these district offices open. They laid off twelve of us by rank and file, and I was right in the middle of it. I had thought I was going to retire at IBEW—I had such a good job with such great benefits.

They laid off twelve of us by rank and file, and I was right in the middle of it. Three days later, my dad died. I felt like my life had imploded.

Three days later, my dad died. I felt like my life had imploded. It was so sudden. IBEW knew my father well. They called me back in and offered me another position, but I declined it. I felt like I needed to help my mom. I was also a single parent, so I stayed home for about a year and took care of my daughter. I coached soccer and got involved as much as I could.

Eventually I got a call from my old boss, saying that they’d heard Local 45 in Hollywood needed a dues person. My job was in a 24-story high-rise with no windows except in the boardroom. In the building next to me, they’d dug a huge hole and were erecting a tower crane.

At that time, there were tower cranes going up everywhere in Hollywood. I would go out on my lunch break and sit and watch the construction, and I loved it. I would take my phone. Eventually, I started shooting some of the work going on.

FUEL: Do you think your interest had to do with your dad?

Absolutely. When I was watching these guys work, I felt like I was watching him. They were a constant reminder of him and what he stood for—his mentality, his demeanor, the way he would talk.

When I started frequenting these jobs sites, one of the old-timers—Rica the Barbarian—started talking to me. As I got to know him and heard the stories he was telling me, I felt like I really got to know my dad.

And then, all the guys started opening up. Having the daughter of an ironworker they respected show up, the workers opened their arms. The stories they would tell me made me realize my dad had helped a lot of people. It was very therapeutic for me—I knew I needed to be there.

FUEL: What did you do with the photos you were taking?

TG: At first, I just started putting them on Facebook. The immediate engagement of other trades workers was huge. They loved seeing photos of other guys working, laughing, smiling.

I made a Facebook business page, and it grew to over 13,000 followers. I created my page in January 2015. By February, I had purchased a camera.

That’s where it started. I had a personal account. The feedback and all these friend requests I started getting from NY, Chicago, Boston, Philly—they were all in the trades, and they loved checking out what was happening in California. It was really cool to see, and I thought I needed to create a business page. The “Under Construction Photography” name came to me one night. So I made a business page, and it grew to over 13,000 followers. My post reach was over 300,000. I created my page in January 2015. By February, I had purchased a camera.

I really wanted to see how far I could go with it—it seemed like there was so much demand. The response I was getting was more than I could have ever dreamed.

FUEL: What made you decide to turn your photography into a business?

TG: In May 2015, Local 45 conducted layoffs, which I’m glad of. I had to make a decision. I started bringing my dad’s hard hat with me to the job sites. I created a website and got a small business license. I went to an ironworkers’ seminar in Michigan—I had won the event’s t-shirt design contest, so my mom helped me fly there and represent myself. And I was hired to document the California ironworkers at a Women Build Nations conference in Chicago.

Things were moving along. It was a slow roll, though. People would ask me, ‘Where do you see this going eventually?’ So I decided I needed to step back and figure out what I really want to do.

Then I got on LinkedIn. That made a big difference. I got a phone call from a crane company in Washington wanting me to go to San Francisco and shoot their cranes. They paid for me to fly up there. The next thing, a concrete company called me, and I’m a subcontractor for them now. They’ve sent me to both San Francisco and Washington.

FUEL: How is business these days?

TG: Mind-blowing at times. I work for Red Wing Shoes. They found me on social media. I really feel like the construction industry as a whole needs to try engaging people who are thinking about joining it. I feel like my imagery is catering to those working people. I’ve been hashtagging a lot #HumansOfConstruction.

Everybody’s talking about how the industry is depleting hands. They’re trying to attract younger people, but how do they reach them? So I’m trying to get as many people as I can to watch the videos and photos I put out—any help, any angle I can use to get people into the industry more.

FUEL: What are some of the highlights of your work?

TG: I climbed a 400-foot Tower Crane at the Wilshire Grand. Those towers give and sway a little bit. There’s definitely movement, so it’s scary. However, I always think, if they ask me ‘Is this something you want to do?’ I have to say yes, because I don’t know when I’m going to get the opportunity again. I’ve gotten some great images from being at the top of a tower crane.

I’ve had a lot of people reach out and say they really enjoy the images—that’s my goal. I watched my dad and my brothers breaking their backs as ironworkers and never saw any imagery of what they were doing. Now, we live in a day of imagery, so I feel like I’m giving back.

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