Billable Hours: The Life of Office Plankton in Robin Dahlberg’s Project
Photographer, artist. Lives in New York City. Graduated from the University of Hartford. Participated in Eddie Adams’ 25th workshop. Exhibited her works in New York and Berlin. Her book Billable Hours was shortlisted at the Festival in Kassel.
— Billable Hours uses humor to examine the office culture of large American corporations. Although the book focuses on law firms, it could easily be about large financial institutions, hedge funds, or industrial and manufacturing companies.
Many large companies portray themselves to the outside world as big ‘happy families’ filled with highly exceptional employees bound together by superior intelligence, superb client relations and a genuine love for the work that they do.
Yet, based on my own experience as a lawyer in a large law firm, I know that the family is not always so happy. The workload can be crushing, the hours long, the office politics impossible to navigate and the competition for recognition unbearable. I try to expose the corporate “family” as I experienced it – a family as dysfunctional as any other.
Moreover, those highly exceptional employees are not particularly exceptional. They may have days when they speak in perfectly punctuated paragraphs, but they also have days when nothing intelligible comes out of their mouths. They may have days in which they seem elegantly dressed and coiffed, but they also have days when their ties are covered with food stains or their socks do not match. In short, just like the rest of us, they have days when everything goes right and days when nothing does.
All of the photographs were taken at the offices of a large New York City law firm, often at the end of the workday or on the weekends. While some of the images were staged, others were not. Many of the characters portrayed in the book are actual lawyers who worked at the law firm.
Although I was a human rights lawyer for many years, I spent the first five years of my legal career at a law firm very similar to the one depicted in my project. I very much enjoyed being a human rights lawyer, but never felt comfortable at that large law firm. In my images, I tried to recreate the office culture with which I was familiar and to evoke the same feelings that I had while working at a law firm. I often refer to Billable Hours as ‘autobiographical fiction.’
I resented the long hours, I felt that the work was tedious and I never could figure out how to navigate the office politics. In addition, I found the high-heeled shoes that women were required to wear extremely uncomfortable. On the other hand, I know many people who have succeeded in that environment. I just wasn’t one of them.
It’s hard to think of one single incident that was worse than any other. In retrospect, many of the more horrifying incidents now seem oddly humorous. There was the time that one of my lawyer colleagues sneezed while he was eating lunch and all of the food in his mouth came flying across the table and landed on my chest. There was the time that I discovered that my secretary had cremated cats in her desk drawer. And there was my first court appearance. I was only required to raise my hand when my case was called and say “plaintiffs’ counsel is here,” but I was so nervous I could barely make it out of the bathroom in time.
I hope not many people will quit their jobs in big corporations after seeing these pictures. Somebody needs to work at those places.