“I don’t claim to be an unbiased observer,” writes activist and photographer David Bacon, who has documented migrant farmworkers in California’s breadbasket for 30 years. “I am on the side of immigrant workers and unions in the United States and share their struggle for rights and a decent life.”
His book, “In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte,” combines black and white portraiture with interviews and oral histories of his subjects to reveal the reality of laborers.
“Photographers must be objective and neutral, the word goes,” writes Bacon, who was a factory worker and union organizer for two decades. “But I believe our work gains visual and emotional power from its closeness to the movements we document.”
His photographs, which are strong and intimate taken alone, are ultimately not designed to speak for themselves: The impact of “In the Fields of the North” arises from the accompanying text, in which workers tell their own stories. The text appears in both English and Spanish, and the book is organized geographically, with chapters devoted to California’s Imperial Valley and Sonoma, as well as Washington and North Carolina.
Farmworkers face visceral hardship. Lorena Hernández, a single mother from Oaxaca living in Madera, Calif. , describes taking salt tablets in order not to faint from the heat while working in the fields. Lucrecia Camacho, who speaks Mixtec, an indigenous language of Mexico, recounts being detained by immigration authorities in Oxnard, a town known for its strawberries.
Stories like these remind us to consider where our food comes from. Workers are paid roughly 20 cents to fill a box of strawberries. “If the price of a clamshell box increased by 5 cents,” Bacon writes, “the wages of the workers would increase by 25 percent” — and most consumers wouldn’t notice the change in price.
Exploitative wages and living conditions are the norm for migrant farmworkers, but the book does search for solutions. In the final chapter, Rosario Ventura describes becoming a striker. “We can’t leave things like this,” she says. “I want a little house and to stay in one place with my kids.”
Threaded throughout stories of picking olives and peaches, of poverty and backbreaking labor, are also the stories of families — parents left behind in Mexico, children born in the U.S. — and of the intersection of lives.
“Migration creates communities,” Bacon writes. “The function of these photographs, therefore, is to help break the mold that keeps us from seeing this reality.” His book aims not merely to show but to tell. “I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice; we should be involved in the world and unafraid to change it.”
University of California Press: 450 pp., $34.95 paper