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November 2016 Featured Photographer of the Month

Yakima

David Bacon | Washington, United States

The old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006. The original mill complex on the Yakima River was started in 1903.

"Yakima" is a multi-level portrait of a working class community in central Washington state. The photographs reveal its human face of work and poverty. They explore the geography of its barrios and workplaces, both the closed factory of Yakima's past and the agricultural fields of its present.

I went to Yakima originally to photograph farm workers, and then wanted to show other dimensions of the Latino community, including houses and trailers, a closed plywood mill, a homeless encampment, and a guest worker camp, in addition to images of farm workers themselves thinning apples and cleaning a field of hops.

One older man, collecting cans for recycling, talked about coming to the U.S. as a bracero, and working as a farm worker for many years. He was collecting cans because he wouldn't have enough money to eat if he didn't. I looked at his hands -- his worklife was reflected in all the lines there. Photographing his hands is a tribute to all that work, and to the working people of Yakima.

"Yakima"

Photographs by David Bacon

"Yakima" is a multi-level portrait of a working class community in central Washington State. The photographs reveal its human face of work and poverty. They explore the geography of its barrios and workplaces, both the closed factory of Yakima's past and the agricultural fields of its present. "Yakima" is a small part of a larger photography and narrative project developed over twenty years, documenting working class life, especially in rural communities of the west coast, called Living Under the Trees.

I went to Yakima originally to photograph farm workers, and then took photographs showing other dimensions of the Latino community here, including homes, a closed plywood mill, a homeless encampment, and a guest worker camp, in addition to images of farm workers themselves thinning apples and cleaning a field of hops.

Early one morning I went running in a neighborhood, looking at the homes I was passing in the alleyways. Then I saw an older man collecting cans for recycling. I stopped to talk with him. He told me about his life coming to the U.S. as a bracero in the late 1950s, and then working as a farm worker for many years afterwards. He said he was collecting cans because he wouldn't have enough money to eat if he didn't. He wasn't bitter, but I respected all the years of work that made up his life. I looked at his hands, and it seemed that his worklife was reflected in all the lines there. I photographed his hands as a tribute to all that work.

I've visited Yakima several times, and the towns around it, including Ellensburg and Royal City. I'm interested in seeing Yakima as the farm workers, the barrio residents and the homeless and unemployed workers see it. At the edge of town is the closed plywood plant where people worked for over a hundred years. The little houses there were originally built by mill workers, and are now the homes of farm workers.

Yakima always was and still is a farm worker town, where most people make a living in the fields. But the closure of the plant is just one reason why those homes have seen better days, as have some of the people who now are living in the homeless encampment downtown. The work people do in the fields is hard physical labor, which I try to communicate by creating as close and intimate an image as I can, while still giving the work and worker the context of the surroundings -- often beautiful trees and tall vines.

The homes of farm workers now include trailer parks, like the Shady Grove Trailer Park in nearby Ellensburg, and even the barracks for modern braceros, or guest workers, on a ranch outside Royal City. Rather than just a picture of a worker in front of a building, though, I took images of two workers cooking their carne asada dinner over coals outside.

We can look back now at the images of the FSA photographers, and admire them as beautiful images while at the same time appreciate the hard lives of the people they photographed. I hope these images combine that same aesthetic quality, and lead us to ask the same questions.

The Mexican photographer Nacho Lopez famously remarked that, "Photography was not meant as art to adorn walls, but rather to make obvious the ancestral cruelty of man against man." Of course, I do hang photographs on walls, and recently did that on the Mexican side of the shameful wall we've built to separate us from Mexico. And I see photographs as a means to do more than expose cruelty. But I am a participant in the world, as Lopez suggests we should be, and my practice arises from that participation.

For three decades I've used a method that combines photographs with personal narratives in the documentation of social reality. I believe my work gains visual and emotional power from its closeness to the people and movements I document. I am not "objective" but partisan - documenting social reality is part of a movement for social change.

When I began to work as a photographer, documenting the lives of migrants and farmworkers, I took with me the perspective of my previous work as a union organizer. Carrying a camera became for me a means to advocate for social and racial justice, the same goals I had as an organizer. The late Bob Fitch, who spent years as a photographer in the U.S. South and later with the farm workers union, recalled, "I perceived myself as an organizer who uses a camera to tell the story of my work, which is true today."

I follow in those footsteps. Advocating for social change is part of a long tradition of social documentary photography in the United States and Mexico, and I hope this work contributes to that tradition today.

dbacon@igc.org

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