David Bacon's In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte Photographs and text by David Bacon Spanish Translation by Rodolfo Hernandez Corchado and Claudia Villegas Delgado University of California Press, 2016/El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2016 450 pp./$34.95 (sb)
"Which Side Are You On?," Florence Reece's famous song based on an old spiritual was, and is, a declaration of partisanship. "No neutrals" she sang. "The workers offered all they had. They offered their hands," she recalled1. She wrote that song in 1930 when she and her husband Sam were organizing coal miners in Eastern Kentucky. Today, Lorena Hernández, a single mother from Oaxaca Mexico, fills buckets with blueberries in the fields of California, for "as long [each day] as my body can take it" (144). She describes her hands as "tired and dirty and mistreated" (148).
Reece's questioning first line has been hijacked for other political interests than labor justice. It's called a phony equivalency, the assumption that there are two equal sides with equal perspectives. But, as documentary photographers well know, not all sides are equivalent. There is no phony equivalency in the informed perspective of David Bacon in his most recent book of stunning photographs and testimony, In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte.2 In his introductory essay, "In the Fields of the North: A Photographer Looks Through a Partisan Lens," Bacon quietly and justly claims his place in a long legacy of partisan photography, particularly of farm laboring. Dorothea Lange, Hansel Mieth, Otto Hagel, Pirkle Jones, Max Yavno, Paul Fusco, Roger Minick, Leonard Nadel, George Ballis, Ken Light, Richard Steven Street, and Ansel Adams all produced photographs of resistance to the invisibility of farm labor, particularly in California. Partisanship was and is intrinsic to their work. Some provided photographs as illustrations, such as Adams's pictures illustrating Paul S. Taylor's field research, "Mexicans North of the Rio Grande," published in the sociological journal Survey Graphic.3 Adams's photographs were taken nearly ninety years ago, but little has changed in the circuitry of poverty and exploitation underpinning the food we eat.
For thirty years, Bacon has listened and observed the hard labor and rough living conditions of people in motion, forced by poverty in the South to work in the fields of the North. In this beautifully designed bilingual-Spanish and English-book, Bacon skillfully integrates voices and images, balancing the particulars of individual stories and the aesthetics of penetrating portraits.
The book's division into seven chapters takes the viewer/reader from the first chapter's critical question: "Where Does our Food Come From?" to specific fields of labor in subsequent chapters: "Just Across the Border" (from migrant workers' perspectives) in San Diego and the Imperial Valley, Coachella and Blythe, Fresno and Arvin, Oxnard and Greenfield, Watsonville and Sonoma. The concluding chapter, "These Things Can Change," situated primarily in Washington State, traces the struggle of workers to form an independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice). Bacon ends with the children of strikers, smiling, standing on a fence, holding a handmade sign reading "Justicia Para Todos." This is the spine of Bacon's dialectic: the tension between the labor of the fields and the pleasures of consuming fruits and vegetables.
The "North" of the title, at once a metaphor and a geography of necessity, is key to seeing Bacon's photographs from the perspective of those living in the South who, forced by poverty, migrate to the North. Those in motion speak twenty-three languages and come from thirteen different Mexican states. They live in rickety shacks, informal settlements (colonia), cramped mobile home parks, in ravines, under trees, and sometimes inside or by the side of the fields, sin techo (without a roof). They pick strawberries, weed onion fields, prune grape vines. They cover their bodies as protection against the intense California heat, constant dust, and pesticides. Some bathe in polluted streams because there are no facilities.
Bacon's photographs incorporate, but do not foreground, the machinery in the fields, extensions of laboring hands. These images are not bucolic or pastoral landscapes of contented peasants; they are representations of what Laura Velasco Ortiz in her Afterword calls, "savage capitalism" (440). Ortiz underscores the contradiction embedded in the heart of California's sophisticated technological economy: the immediacy of piece-rate labor in the foreground, the wealth of high-tech industry in the background (440). Whether Purépechas from Michoacán or Mixtecos from Oaxaca, what field workers have in common is the physicality of labor. Bacon's photographs speak the language of the body at work. He offers a visual epistemology of labor. One can only imagine where Bacon positions his own body, and how he develops trusting relationships with workers and their families-who are not nameless-but are specifically named and seen by Bacon. This is not a photographer's self-reference. Rather, it is, to modify John Berger's language, a process of "imaginative attention" and having "a seeing eye."4
Bacon's black-and-white photographs put to rest any assumptions about the bifurcation of documentation and aesthetics. Consider his horizon lines, literally and metaphorically-as borders, separators, crossings, symbols, and as intersections of fields and bodies. The horizon suggests, dialogically, the desire for stasis and the necessity of movement. In photograph 045, a crew harvests romaine lettuce in a Coachella field. In the foreground, shadows of light and dark mark the romaine, a crouched worker, and his knife. In the background, four other workers, one wearing a back support, break the horizon line with their bodies. Another crew harvests melons. The figure in the foreground, head shielded by a US flag scarf, wearing a light-colored sweatshirt, empties pale melons into a white bucket. His body, in an unintended warrior pose, intersects a diagonal dark horizon line (photograph 086). That line speaks to Bacon's appreciation of Alexander Rodchenko's advice, "We must take photographs from every angle but the navel" (20).
Bacon's portraits, like those of Milton Rogovin, convince because Bacon has earned trust inside and outside the fields. Consider his close framing of the faces of a Mixtec couple from Oaxaca, their personal dignity and their weathered skin; they pick raisins in Fresno (115). Consider Lino Reyes, his wife and five children, Mixtec migrants from Oaxaca, who all live in a garage on the outskirts of Oxnard, California. Reyes and his wife work in the strawberry fields (167). Consider the hands of Armando (and Bacon's descriptive caption), as he "manicures a bunch of table grapes, clipping out the dry or unripe ones" (photograph 040). Consider what it takes to stand all day with arms outstretched in grapevines. Consider the necessity of multiple layers of clothing in fields where the temperature can reach 107 degrees. Consider Bacon's sensitivity to details-Alejandra Espinoza's headscarf is printed with little hearts and baby bears (unnumbered photograph).
Organic farming protects workers from sprayed chemical fields, but also involves more stooped labor. Bacon deconstructs assumptions about organic produce from a worker's perspective: "a healthy, attractive, organic potato . . . is much more a product of workers' labor than the non-organic kind" (40). And he reminds the organic produce-consumer that "low wages and abuse are as prevalent in organic agriculture as they are in the non-organic sector" (46).
Wherever you open this book and gaze at the photographs, you will see images of masked workers, especially women, fabric over head and mouth, only the eyes penetrating through slits in the wrapped cloth. Bacon's photographs unmask these human beings.
In the Fields of the North is also a collective and collaborative work. Bacon, a trained union organizer, has worked for decades with the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization), and California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). Bacon writes, "They helped design this project at the beginning, the lawyers and especially the community workers in CRLA, the activists in FIOB, participated in taking the photographs and recording the interviews at all levels" (446). These memorable, aesthetically powerful photographs are Bacon's, but it is in keeping with his sense of solidarity that he shares credit. (Imagine other photographers acknowledging the work of their printers or studio assistants.) This acknowledgment reflects the communal sensibility of the workers themselves. This is not about hyper-individualism, or "making it"; it is about making some or just enough to send back to the family in the South. This is a Whitmanian sense of "adhesion," of the necessity of solidarity. It is an aesthetic of relationality.
There is joy, culture, and custom too. Children wear traditional dance costumes at the Santa Cruz Guelaguetza (190-191). Victoria de Jesús Ramírez weaves a reboso (shawl) on a traditional Triqui belt loom as a child looks over her shoulder to learn her skill (185). Trilingual Raymundo Guzmán, a farm worker from Oaxaca, intends, with his friend Miguel Villegas, to be the world's first Mixteco rappers (unnumbered photograph). He wants to be "a rapper with a conscience," like his idol Tupac Shakur, and to push up "like a flower that grew in concrete" (168).
Through his clear, concise writing, his informed captions, and his powerful photographs, David Bacon witnesses lives, not working human machines. He, too, is a harvester and a gleaner. What is the efficacy of his labor? His photographs are more than accumulations of decisive moments. They are about the work of photography to create spaces for alterable moments-when the understanding of the viewer shifts, when a particular visual epistemology expands. He asks us for deeper sight and insight, and a willingness to hear Raymundo Guzmán: "I want to live, not just survive . . . We have to move forward" (168).
JANET ZANDY, emerita professor, Rochester Institute of Technology, is the author of Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work (2004); Unfinished Stories: The Narrative Photography of Hansel Mieth and Marion Palfi (2013), and other books on working-class culture.
NOTES 1. Florence Reece, interview by Kathy Kahn, "They Say Them Child Brides Don't Last," in Kathy Kahn, Hillbilly Women (New York: Avon Books, 1973), 4-11, quoted in American Working-Class Literature, An Anthology, ed. Nicholas Coles and Janet Zandy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 393-99. 2. See also David Bacon, The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004; Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006; Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008); and The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013). 3. Paul S. Taylor, "Mexicans North of the Rio Grande," Survey Graphic 19 (May 1931): 138-39, cited in Richard Steven Street, Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850-2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 131. 4. John Berger, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, ed. Tom Overton (London: Verso, 2015), 54.
In an impressive and important new book David Bacon effectively counters the racism and xenophobia advanced by our current president and promoted in right-wing media by providing hundreds of photos and clear descriptions of the real life and work of the immigrants harvesting the food we eat.
Bacon does so by interviewing farmworkers and photographing farmworkers in their "housing" and in their work. He reports and records the humanity of the thousands of people who come north to harvest our crops and to feed their families as best they can. In interviews and photos farm workers and their families tell their own stories with dignity and humanity.
Photo journalist David Bacon has a long history of documented the lives of immigrant people including the important books, Illegal People: How Globalization creates migration and criminalizes immigrants. (2008) and The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Beacon Press, 2013) http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=2328 as well as in a long list of journal articles.
In The Fields of the North, Bacon uses his extensive and award-winning photography to tell more of the story including interviews, narrative recording, and factual reporting in both English and Spanish.
This is not a book with some photos, rather it is a series of extended photo essays ( with over 300 photos) showing that images and words have a combined power far beyond either words or images by themselves. In his writing and photographs Bacon tells the story of cycle of exploitation and poverty suffered by tens of thousands moving from season to season, working in the fields for sub minimum wages, and facing the racism and political power of growers and their labor contractors.
It is a unique fusion of journalism and documentary photography. published jointly by the University of California Press and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, I doubt if such a work would have been published by a commercial press or an art press.
Through his long history of advocacy and activism, David Bacon is not neutral. Rather, he is committed to showing the humanity of his subjects- the mostly undocumented farm laborers of the California, Arizona, Texas, Oregon and Washington.
As a journalist, he compares prices for harvesting crops today, and in the 1960's to illustrate that the workers are more exploited today. ( 28) Then, he adds photos to show you the lives of the people who suffer under these exploitive conditions.
In general, according to the author, farm labor today is paid more poorly than were workers in the 60's when the United Farm Workers union was organized and conducted their first strikes in the valleys of California.
Today many growers are "paying an illegal [subminimum] wage to tens of thousands of farm workers," Bacon says. Workers get about $1.50 for picking a flat of strawberries. "Each flat contains about eight plastic clamshell boxes, so a worker is paid about 20 cents to fill each one. That same box sells in a supermarket for three dollars...If the price of a clamshell box increased by five cents the wages of workers would increase by 25 percent."
While the United Farmworkers Union made an impressive gain in achieving unemployment benefits for farmworkers in the 1980's in California, undocumented farmworkers cannot collect unemployment for the long periods when there are no crops to harvest.
Recent legislation increases the California minimum wages to $10.50 per hour in 2017, on the way to $15 per hour including all farmworkers in 2023, if it can be enforced where workers often paid by piece work such as in the berries. Farm labor in most states is not covered by minimum wage laws,
Bacon's informative personal interviews and accounts reveal what today's life is like for a wide variety of migrant workers in grapes, berries, lettuce and a variety of crops we serve on our tables; from living in caves, without housing, in river beds, cardboard shacks, to living in the back seats of cars. The photographs speak volumes.
While many readers are aware of the wealth and the affluence of life in California cities, few recognize that these same cities are surrounded by agriculture -San Diego, Los Angeles, Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Sacramento and much of the California Central Valley where you will find poverty rates as severe as any place in the nation.
Where doe your food come from?
The photo essays make the difference. These people harvest our crops and feed us. The work force is significantly female. Many suffer sexual assaults and exploitation which they too often endure in order to keep their jobs and feed their children. These are excerpts from the personal tale told by Lucrecia Camacho.
"I began working when I was nine years old. In Culiacán I picked cotton. I would get three pesos per day...From that time on, I have spent my entire life working. When I was 13 my mother sold me to a young man and I was with him for eight months, I was soon pregnant. After I started having children, they were always with me.
After I came to the U.S.I did the same thing. I took them to the fields with me and built them a little shaded tent on the side of the field... I began working her in the fields of Oxnard when I first arrived in 1985, and I did it until last year. I already had 7 children by the time I got here." ( p. 252)
In the Fields of the North includes many similar, detail filled personal stories of pain and suffering along with photos of the subjects and their families.
Bacon records the significant shift in farm labor that accelerated in the 80's of Mexican indigenous people, speaking Mixtec, Triqui, and various languages as they were pushed out of their homes in the south of Mexico and moved into the U.S. migrant stream, largely in response to NAFTA.
Farm labor has changed dramatically since the 70's and 80's. It is now a new, mostly immigrant , often (Mexican) indigenous population. One of the important organizations discussed in the interviews is the Frente Indígena Oaxaqueña Binacional.
These photo essays provides important contributions to understanding that we are experiencing a major restructuring of the global economy. This economic restructuring (commonly known as neoliberalism) is directed by the transnational corporations to produce profits for the corporate owners. The impoverishment of the vast majority of people in pursuit of profits for a small minority has pushed millions to migrate from Africa, Asia and Latin America in search of food, jobs, and security. Global capitalism produces global migration. NAFTA and other "Free Trade" deals each produce new waves of migration.
A result is a situation in which workers on both sides of this border and around the world have been disempowered and impoverished. Workers everywhere are forced to accept ever worsening wages and working conditions.
The problem in our economy is not immigration as Trump claims; the problem is our broken immigration laws that allow business to exploit workers who lack legal status, driving down wages for all workers. If every immigrant were allowed to get into our system of labor law, pay their dues, and work legally , we could block the corporations' exploitation and eliminate much of the oppression in farm labor. But, that will not happen because poor people do not have political power.
The work of the UFW and of smaller independent unions is vital. At the same time, H2A workers (guest workers) are used to break efforts to form a union. The H2A program was established in 1986, to allow U.S. agricultural employers to hire workers in other countries, and bring them to the U.S. in response to an alleged labor shortage.
The battle for unionization at Sakuma Farms in Washington illustrates one of the problems of H2A programs. This alleged labor shortage is in fact created by the restrictions of our broken immigration system and the current enhanced enforcement of ICE. Use of H2A, or guest workers, rather than legal immigrants is the preferred form of immigration "reform" advanced by growers and the Republican party.
In both photos and essays Bacon describes the battle for unionization at Sakuma Farms in Washington that well illustrates one of the problems of H2A programs. Today Sakuma Farms is one of the largest berry growers in Washington.
In prior years, Sakuma Farms relied on local workers and migrants from California (mostly indigenous Mixtec and Triqui) to fill its 7-800 picking jobs at the peak of the harvest. In 2013 and 2014, the company applied to bring in H2A Workers. This year, another Washington berry grower, Sarbanand Farms, brought in over 500 H2-A workers, and working conditions were so bad that one worker died and 70 others went on strike.
Sakuma workers went on strike twice during the last year, seeking better wages and safe living conditions. Finally, the workers ratified a first contract this summer. If history follows the pattern of other farmworker contracts, the corporation will use the first opportunity it finds to break the contract (actually, it already has), while other growers like Sarbanand Farms bring in ever-larger numbers of H2A workers to prevent unionization.
"We can't leave things like this. There is too much abuse. We are making them right and making ourselves poor. It is not fair." Rosario Ventura, a Sakuma Farms striker
The persistent poverty in the fields and the use of migrant labor as an exploitable resource is a result of strategic racism, that is a system of racial oppression created and enforced because it benefits the over class- in this case corporate agriculture and farm owners. It is a complex structure of institutions and individuals from police and sheriffs, to immigration authorities and anti-immigrant activists, politicians and elected officials and their support networks. These groups foster and promote inter racial conflict, job competition, and anti-union organizing, as strategies to keep wages and benefits low and to promote their continuing hold on power and wealth.
It is corporate power that creates devastating poverty in Mexico and Central America and creates the conditions of "super-exploitation" for workers . Faced with few jobs and more poverty, they toil under harsh conditions and with fewer rights in order to maximize profits for the foreign corporations and their domestic suppliers. These conditions of super-exploitation push workers to migrate to the U.S. without documentation. Currently they lack legal protections and basic labor protections while they live under the constant threat of deportation, making it very difficult to demand better working and living conditions
Bacon helps us to see the exploitation and to hear the stories of the oppressed in this current wave of migration. Today, for many life is harder than before. It is more temporary. Since the vast majority of farm workers are now undocumented, mostly from Mexico, their exploitation has increased.
This labor force is all around us in California, Washington, Arizona ,Texas, across the Midwest and in the South, but it is largely invisible. David Bacon's book and photographs make them visible.
BOOK EVENTS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA In the Fields of the North / En los Campos del Norte
September 12, UC Berkeley Labor Center 6PM, 2521 Channing Way, Berkeley
September 13, Food to Farm Event 5:30PM, Guy West Plaza, Sacramento State University, Sacramento
September 15, Green Arcade Bookstore 7PM, 1680 Market Street, San Francisco
In the Fields of the North / En los Campos del Norte Photographs and text by David Bacon University of California Press / Colegio de la Frontera Norte
302 photographs, 450pp, 9”x9” paperback, $34.95
SPECIAL OFFER: order the book on the UC Press website: ucpress.edu/9780520296077 use source code 16M4197 at checkout receive a 30% discount