Everyone Had Cameras: Photographers, Photography and the Farmworker Experience in California-A Photographic Essay

By Street, Richard Steven | California History, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Everyone Had Cameras: Photographers, Photography and the Farmworker Experience in California-A Photographic Essay


Street, Richard Steven, California History


"Cesar Chavez really knew the value of photography .... He was very visually aware. I don't think he did anything during the first year of the strike without considering how it would look on film. To an extent that few realized, much of what the National Farm Worker Association did was conceived with the idea of shaping the visual record to their advantage. Everyone had cameras."

--John Kouns, freelance photographer, Delano, California, 1965-1966

The photographers who have worked among California farmworkers have been called the eyes of conscience, but they have also been called propagandists for hire. They have recorded life and labor in the fields, even while obscuring its harsh realities. They have probed the human condition and glorified an industry, captured tenacity, generosity, and dignity, and also recorded suffering, injustice, and violent class warfare.

A diverse and eclectic group as varied in composition as are farmworkers themselves, these photographers never comprised a unified movement and went about their business individually, at their own pace, in their own ways, according to their own special visions. They include professionals and amateurs alike, some of the great chroniclers of the human condition, as well as photographers with a deeply selective, highly fragmented, episodic, and uneven perspective. Presenting a multitude of views and often inclined to overemphasizing certain people, places, and events, they have at times been lopsided in their boosterism and top-heavy with highly critical imagery stressing the dark side. Many have been physically, emotionally, and intellectually brave. A few have lived on next to nothing, under dangerous circumstances. Some have refused to take sides and shifted easily between lucrative advertising and unprofitable editorial images, between idealized and seductive representations of commercial farming and more probing explorations into the less beautiful, sometimes gruesome rural underside. Some have been little more than voyeurs, "day-tripping into someone else's nightmare," as British photographer Anthony Lloyd has said of certain war photographers covering Bosina in 1993. (1)

Photographers have drawn more attention to California farmworkers than any other chroniclers except for John Steinbeck and Carey Mc Williams. Has their work made a difference? Some people might argue that images of immigrants living in caves and shelters made of garbage while picking strawberries remind us of the growing gap between rich and poor and the existence of a variety of American apartheid. Others might say that after being exposed again and again to such images we suffer a kind of "compassion fatigue" in which the I've-seen-it-before syndrome can only be overcome by seeking out ever more sensational images.

Most people would probably agree with what we intuitively know and see from common experience--that photographers matter very much to farmworkers. Their work exerts a pervasive influence on events. "No art form transforms human apathy quicker," explains composer, novelist, and photographer Gordon Parks. "Having absorbed the message of a memorable photograph, the viewer's sense of compassion and newfound wisdom come together like the two lips touching." (2) Even more so than writers, photographers have the capacity to change the world, or at least provide a kiss of enlightenment that can lead to change. …

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