Editorial Photography

How Sasha Arutyunova Photographed a Story on Low-Wage Service Workers for TIME

November 11, 2019

By Ellen DeWitt

© Sasha Arutyunova
© Sasha Arutyunova

Assigned to photograph a diner for a TIME magazine cover story, photographer Sasha Arutyunova conjured up Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” an iconic work she finds inspiring but at the same time formidable. Her loose homage, capturing a similarly lonely mood, appeared on the cover of TIME’s Sept. 2, 2019 edition, with more images inside to illustrate “Low Wages, Sexual Harassment and Unreliable Tips. This Is Life in America’s Booming Service Industry.”

Recalling the rainy August night when she shot the cover photo, Arutyunova says she fretted that the colors and the lighting were all wrong and she was failing to capture the essence of the Hopper painting, which depicts customers and a worker at a late-night diner. “I just had the idea of the Hopper painting so deeply in my head,” says Arutyunova. “But I realized that in the end, that’s just the jumping off point, and it doesn’t have to look exactly like the painting. In fact, it’s better that it doesn’t.”

For interior shots, on the other hand, she says she tried not to evoke the vast catalogue of American diner photography, such as William Eggleston’s Southern eateries or a roadscape of a Route 66 drive. “I was trying not to think too much about them and just try to remember the way that I like to shoot and not try to emulate those images,” she says.

Arutyunova often shoots portrait assignments for magazines and The New York Times. Born in Moscow, she moved to the U.S. as a child, later went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was a PDN’s 30 in 2017. Between assignments, she is working on a project to show the everyday life of her family in Russia.

© Sasha Arutyunova
Sunset at the Broad Street Diner, Philadelphia. © Sasha Arutyunova

Her cover assignment for TIME began with a call to Arutyunova’s agent from Thea Traff, senior photo editor at TIME. The magazine was preparing to publish a story written by reporters Alana Semuels and Malcolm Burnley of The Fuller Project, a non-profit newsroom that reports on issues that have an impact on women.

The story, set amid the red vinyl booths and busy kitchen of the 24-hour Broad Street Diner in South Philadelphia, was a look at the lives of workers who rely on tips to earn a living. Some 4.4 million Americans, two-thirds of them women, rely on the low and unreliable wages and struggle to make ends meet.

With such a dark and somber angle, traditional diner photography—with its harsh light and energetic esthetic—would not fit, says Traff. “Sasha’s work just has a softness, and her photos are so emotionally evocative,” she says. “I knew from the outset that Sasha was the perfect fit for this.”

Traff provided a brief that suggested drawing upon Hopper’s 1942 painting and also listed specific shots editors wanted, such as a close-up of a waitress’s order pad. Arutyunova spent three days on the assignment in August. Shooting at the restaurant, she documented the staff at work, and shot a wide variety of portraits, still-life details and interiors. 

Among the detail shots, for instance, is a photograph of a scribbled-on pad perched in a waitress’s pocket, along with a fistful of paper-wrapped straws, with just the waitress’s tattooed arm and her red polished nails visible. “You don’t need a picture of a person’s face to tell their story. There are so many other details that contribute to the feeling of what they’re all about,” Arutyunova says. “Sometimes that can even say more than the picture of the person’s face.”

Photos © Sasha Arutyunova
Left: Two young diner patrons mull their orders. Right: Arutyunova focused on interior details of the diner, as well as the hands of employees at work. Photos © Sasha Arutyunova

Traff says not only were the still lifes her favorites, but that there were about 50 from Arutyunova’s take that she would have liked to publish. “I was just really keen to get at the story through these still lifes rather than focusing on the women [waitresses] in a literal way,” Traff says. “If it were up to me, I would have published almost exclusively the beautiful still lifes that she ended up taking.”

But the restaurant staff features prominently in the story. (Patrons were not shown at the request of the restaurant owner and on the advice of the publisher’s legal counsel.) Before Arutyunova started shooting, Burnley had visited the diner repeatedly, building rapport with its management and staff, particularly waitress Christina Munce. “She was really enthusiastic, and she wanted to tell her story, so it didn’t take much to build rapport,” the photographer says.

Munce, 32, left school and started waitressing when she became pregnant with her now 11-year-old daughter. She has worked at the diner for eight years, and is a single mother. Munce earns a base pay of $2.83 an hour. The rest of her income is comprised of tips, Medicaid and food stamps. “My mind is always calculating,” Munce is quoted as saying in the article. “It’s not O.K. for people not to tip.”

(Legally, employers are supposed to make up the difference when the base pay and tips do not add up to the state and federal minimum wage of $7.25, but the law is rarely enforced.)

“You don’t need a picture of a person’s face to tell their story. There are so many other details that contribute to the feeling of what they’re all about. . . Sometimes that can even say more than the picture of the person’s face.”

— Sasha Arutyunova

In addition to photographing inside the restaurant, Arutyunova also photographed Munce at home with her daughter. 

She shot the assignment using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III digital camera and a Mamiya 7 II film camera. The Mamiya, which Arutyunova used to make a particularly striking picture of the diner when it was dark and empty, is quiet and good for close-up detail, while the Canon proved better for faster shots, the photographer explains.

She used a Canon 135mm f/2 fixed telephoto lens and a Zeiss 50mm f/2 macro manual focus lens and no added light. “I just love working with available light and trying to problem-solve when I have not-so-great available light,” Arutyunova says.

The diner’s fluorescent interior lighting, as well as dark cloudy skies and heavy rain outside, meant the photos needed post-processing to bring out the colors she wanted, she explains.

Arutyunova’s take totaled some 4,000 shots. She submitted an edit of 86 images to TIME. The magazine ended up selecting 14 for publication. Arutyunova was surprised that one of her own favorites—showing a waitress walking away from the camera carrying a tray of food in dramatic light—didn’t make the final edit.

“When I shot that picture, I was like, ‘Oh great, I got it,” she says. “That picture made me feel like I really nailed the assignment.” 

Arutyunova plans to post a “director’s cut” of images she liked best on Instagram.

“[The editors] really just have to pick the pictures that tell the story the best,” she says. “They told me that they were really happy with the shoot, and that’s as much as I need to hear.” 

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