Book Review: David Bacon’s In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte by Janet Zandy

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)

Janet Zandy

“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.

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