RICK NAHMIAS was at cooking school in an affluent ZIP Code of the Napa Valley, a mouth-watering abundance of fruit and vegetables arrayed for his instruction every day, when it occurred to him to wonder at the hidden source of this bounty. “It astounded me,” he says, “that nobody there talked about where all this food was coming from.”
A screenwriter, photographer and then researcher for political columnist Arianna Huffington, Nahmias had gone to Napa with the thought of maybe getting into the restaurant business. But his curiosity sent him in another direction altogether: on a mission to document through photographs the lives of contemporary farmworkers in California.
The result of his six-month immersion in the fields, “The Migrant Project,” is on exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance through April 25, one stop on a national tour. The exhibit’s 40 black-and-white images offer a glimpse into the seldom-acknowledged reality of the labor force necessary to provide food for the nation’s supermarkets and dinner tables. These photographs of farmworkers and their families are not overtly political, yet taken as a whole, they raise unavoidable questions about the wages and living conditions of the people who make the state’s $32-billion-a-year agricultural industry possible.
The poverty and drudgery of the estimated 1.1 million California farmworkers (nine in 10 of whom are Latino) are not news, except that Nahmias’ photographs provide fresh evidence that their long-lamented hardships and indignities remain much the same as they were when Cesar Chavez began organizing in the Central Valley in the 1960s.
“I think it’s a fallacy if anyone thinks that documentarians don’t have an objective, a point of view,” Nahmias says. “I’m not trying to disguise the fact that I come to the subject with sympathy for the people I’m photographing. But I want to believe I’m putting the information out there and allowing the audience to form their own opinions.”
After that week in Napa Valley in 2002, Nahmias, now 42, returned with a new passion that compelled him to quit his job with Huffington and begin investigating where his tomatoes and strawberries came from and who picked them. Versed in the ways of Hollywood as a writer with projects in development, he briefly considered making a documentary film but rejected the idea in favor of doing something that would require only himself and a camera, his old Nikon FE, “the one thing in my hands that I knew I could count on,” he says.
A native of the San Fernando Valley and graduate of New York University (with a double major in film and religious studies), Nahmias wasn’t a professional photographer and wasn’t even sure how he was going to go about the assignment he had given himself. “I left with a lot of uncertainty about where my next paycheck was going to come from, but I felt I had to take a chance and do this.”
He started applying for grants and didn’t get any, meanwhile reading anything and everything about the history of farmworkers in California. He deliberately avoided the “iconic imagery” in such work by photographers Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol, who traveled the same fields during the Great Depression, or in the more recent political protest photographs of Richard Steven Street.
After he was underway, at a friend’s insistence, Nahmias did allow himself to look at the James Agee-Walker Evans book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” an exploration of the lives of sharecroppers in the American South, published in 1941.
“There’s a photo in the book of a pair of migrant’s shoes, and it connected directly in my mind with a shot I had of a dozen pair of shoes, representing the shoes of people sharing one bedroom,” he says. “It was an ‘aha’ moment,” carrying the message that not a lot had changed for migrant workers in 70 or 80 years and that the symbols of their backbreaking labor were eerily identical.
But Nahmias also began to see how his work might be different from that of photographers who had gone before. “I found gay farmworkers, farmworkers with HIV, women and children, reflecting issues in our current society.”
Though the issue of immigration is a popular backdrop for images of Latino laborers today, Nahmias tried to avoid that in “The Migrant Project.” “I wanted to capture more intimate moments,” he says, “that might help the mainstream Middle American identify with these human beings.”
The cover of the book that accompanies the exhibit is a shot of buckets of tomatoes carried by a line of workers who disappear out of the frame and remain faceless. Another favorite shot of the author’s is of a small white cross marking the grave of an unidentified worker. It’s one of dozens in a bare dirt field, stenciled with the words No Olvidado (Not Forgotten). In another photo, a man stands beside towering stacks of strawberry flats, evoking the legend that workers fill between 30 and 120 flats a day.
Nahmias started with a single contact in Oxnard and made his own way behind the scenes and into the lives of the migrants. “One person led to the next,” he says. Over the six months he made eight trips in all, three to five days at a time, to the Central Valley, the Coachella Valley and the Imperial Valley. “I slept at Motel 6s, stayed with family and friends,” he says. Farmworkers also invited him to share their modest, crowded quarters.
He carried only black-and-white film (Kodak Tri-X and Ilford), used available light and tried not to be limited by what he didn’t know. “There was a certain naivete that kept me more open to what I was doing. I didn’t come to this as an expert. But I did come with my own sensibility. Experts in photography could criticize some of these images from a technical point of view -- the lighting certainly.”
One thing he did know and felt strongly about was that he wanted to shoot with film rather than with a digital camera, as well as in black and white. “There’s a purity to black and white that gets to the essence of a composition, clearing everything else away. The faces might not be as strong if not in black and white. If you use color, you have to know the whole palette and how every element is going to reflect on the others.”
As for preferring film, he says, “There’s a certain disposability with a digital frame that is endemic of our society. Every time you click that shutter, a statement is being made or should be made. There’s a texture to the human face that I see in film more clearly.”
Before he was through, Nahmias did win some grants. Libraries and public schools helped support his work. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, wrote an introduction for his book. And he went on to get paying jobs as a professional photographer, documenting, in one project, a liver transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
And the Museum of Tolerance booked his show. “The theme of the migrant workers touches on human dignity and human rights which resonate in our museum every day,” says Director Liebe Geft, explaining why she decided to display “The Migrant Project” in a museum devoted chiefly to memories of the Holocaust. “These faceless, nameless people, we are the beneficiaries of their labor.”
“I don’t think 40 images is going to change anything,” Nahmias says, “but I hope it might invite a conversation, drop something into the head of a 12-year-old that resurfaces 10 years later in a way you can’t foresee.”
The biggest payoff for him, he says, was witnessing the reactions of farmworkers and their families standing in front of his framed photos, some of them crying, simply because “it was the first time, they told me, they had seen themselves represented with dignity. I didn’t know what to do with that. It was a gift, humbling.”
‘The Migrant Project’
Where: Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Ends: April 25
Contact: (310) 772-2504