Photographs by David Bacon
Social Documentary Network, Featured Photographer, 11/7/16
"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 an older man collecting cans for recycling 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. He was collecting cans because he wouldn't have enough money to eat if he didn't, yet he wasn't bitter. 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 a 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. In front of the barracks for modern braceros, or guest workers, on a ranch outside Royal City, I took images of two workers cooking their carne asada dinner over a fire 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.
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."
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.
The old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006. The original mill complex on the Yakima River was started in 1903.
The old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006.
Manuel Ortiz came to the U.S. from Mexico as a bracero in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and spent decades working as a farm worker in California and Washington. He is 85 years old and can no longer work in the fields. His hands show a life of work.
Manuel Ortiz has lived in Yakima for 30 years. Because his income is so low, he survives by collecting cans and bottles from the trashcans in the barrio to recycle to get money to buy food.
A home in a poor neighborhood in Yakima.
A home in a poor neighborhood of Yakima.
Mario Magaña chops weeds growing in the rows between hops vines, before the hops are harvested for making beer.
Juan Infante thins fruit on red delicious apple trees, so that the remaining apples will grow to a large size.
Celina Arcos thins fruit on apple trees.
Sara N. Sanchez de Lustre thins fruit on apple trees.
Jose Manuel and Alberto are H2A guest workers, and live in a camp on a ranch in central Washington. They cook meat for carne asada on a grill outside their barracks.
The Shady Grove Trailer Park in Ellensburg, where many Mexican farm workers live. County authorities want to close the park and evict the tenants in order to use the space for performers at the annual county fair, and residents accuse the county of using this as a pretext to get rid of poor Latino residents.
The Shady Grove Trailer Park.
Francisco grew up in the trailer behind him, where he lives with his parents. He cleans his tennis shoes on the steps, and says his father hates his earring.
Rick lives in a tent camp set up by homeless people on the street in downtown Yakima.
A tent camp set up by homeless people on the street in downtown Yakima.
A rail line leaves Yakima through the gate of the old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006.