FRESNO, California — “One of the problems is that in some supermarkets they report where the peaches they sell are grown, but they say nothing about those who harvest them” explains Ken Light during the presentation of the book, Valley of Shadows and Dreams (Heyday, 2012) on Saturday, June 2nd, in Fresno. This is precisely the book’s purpose: to show the lives of Valley agricultural laborers and their families.
The work is a photographic essay by Ken Light, professor of photojournalism at the University of California at Berkeley, with texts by his wife, writer Melanie Light and with a preface by Thomas Steinbeck, son of the famous author John Steinbeck (1902-1968 ), author of the very famous book “The Grapes of Wrath”, which narrates the miseries of immigrants from the Dustbowl, who came west to the Central Valley of California during the Great Depression of 1929-1930.
The misery of the laborers has not changed since then, according to the authors of the book, although the laborers are not from Oklahoma anymore, as in Steinbeck’s novel, but primarily from Mexico.
And such misery has numbers: while a farm worker makes around $16,000 per year, his/her labor contributes to a wealthy industry of $13 billions in the Valley (in 2002, according to the American Farmland Trust.)
“Americans have a tradition of being innovators. That’s why it seems so amazing that in the Valley business continues as usual” said Melanie, referring to the labor situation and the lives of farm workers.
Other photographs in the book show abandoned and empty housing developments, as if they are suspended in time, places that were about to become homes or neighborhoods. They were built hastily by developers during the height of the construction boom and abandoned during the economic crisis in 2007.
These developments which encroached on the agricultural land, are now muted ghosts of an illusion of the consumption and “progress” that spectacularly collapsed, affecting the entire Valley and now the global community.
The book, “Valley of Dreams and Shadows” has 154 pages and over 110 beautifully printed photos. It is not a collection of pictures accompanied by texts, but a careful and critical photographic and written narrative essay that took five years to complete. The authors also try to show the dreams of the inhabitants of the valley, and how things seem not to change.
The forces that are opposed to social and political change didn’t cahnge their point of view with the appearance of the book.”Here comes another photographer from an enlightened metropolis to focus on the ills of the Valley. With sugarplum dreams of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965, famous photojournalist who made portraits of peasants, displaced and marginalized, including those in the Central Valley) and Grapes of Wrath importance dancing through his head, Ken Light is ready to tell the world about his ride on what a Fresno State photography professor calls the “poverty tourism circuit,” … documenting the usual suspects of awfulness: poverty, environmental degradation, vanishing cultures, home foreclosures, growing economic disparity.…” wrote Donald Munro, Entertainment columnist from The Fresno Bee on May 29 (http://fresnobeehive.com/2012/05/our_valley_thro.html)
He admits not even having seen the book but does refer to the contents of the book ironically in his article titled “Our Valley through the eyes of a stranger” on the Fresno Bee web site. Public comments to this column were more measured and dignified than the text of Munro.
One commentator invited Munro to attend the book launch and talk with the authors. The invitation came from Myrna Martinez Nateras, of the Pan Valley Institute (www.afsc.org), an organization that co-sponsored the book authors’ visit to Fresno. Munro did not attend, nor did the newspaper, The Fresno Bee, cover the event.
This attitude did not surprise the audience of about 50 people who attended the release of “Valley of Dreams and Shadows” in the local Fresno Arte Americas. Hugo Morales, director of Radio Bilingue (www.radiobilingue.org), and who moderated the dialogue between authors and the public, recounted his experience when he met with a senior executive of an agricultural business in the valley asking for a donation to an education project for the field workers. “They said no, it did not seem right that workers become educated because then they would leave the field and companies like ours need workers,” said Morales. “They do not want anything to change here.”
This attitude of not changing anything was evident in the 90’s, when the University of California looked at the possibility of building its tenth campus in Fresno, in the heart of the Valley. A team of “notables” evaluated the proposal and rejected it! Finally, in 1995, a new campus began to be built in Merced, 60 miles north of Fresno. How is it possible to reject such an idea in an area with high unemployment and low education? Surely because of the fear that our Valley might be seen by many strange eyes, such as Munro wrote about ?
These trends are reflected in all its complexity in the powerful images of Ken Light, who is no stranger to the Valley. His interest in documenting the lives of farm workers started in 1970, when he settled in the Bay from the East. At that time the farmworkers movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta was still intense. “It was an incredible story that I felt had to be documented,” explains Ken.
Through the years, he produced several books devoted to farm workers and immigrants in general “With These Hands” (1986) and “To the Promised Land” (1988) “I was working with Ken a few years ago, in Sinaloa, Mexico,” said Morales. “The intensity of his art is incredible.”
The work behind the project, mostly invisible to the reader, is also intense. Melanie made several trips to the Valley and discovered issues that would lead them to the development of the book. She recalled her experience of seeing the birth and death records in Visalia in the local public library, while researching for an article about the photographer Hansel Mieth (1009-1998) who worked photographing in the valley during the Depression. The records showed the amazing ethnic diversity that even then was part of the fabric of Valley communities. On her drive home she found that this visit had piqued her interest and literally opened her eyes, she was no longer just another Coastal California driving down Highway 99, but a Californian citizen seeing many issues of the Valley in a new way and wanting to tell others, and delve into the myriad of important social issues that she discovered like water, undocumented workers, industrial agriculture, pollution, governance, democracy and who’s in charge, all of which are written about in the book.
Melanie and Ken also traveled to Fresno’s City Hall to begin the book project on May 1st, 2006, the day of the national Immigration march, to photograph and interview documented and undocumented workers. Some of those images are also in the book.
Melanie learned about the struggles of farmworkers throughout California’s history, some little known, even in the Valley. For example after the Great Depression of 1929-39, the laborers were receiving less than half the salary before the 30’s economic crisis. “In 1933 and 1934 there was protests and strikes which at the end of, workers were able to get paid a little more,” said Melanie.
Then Ken compared the agricultural work with that of the coal miners, who dig up coal from the earth, and how the profit and wealth this created was enjoyed by others, and then the profits leave the area; and the workers and land is left impoverished.
Their impressions and their sensitivity, reflected in some remarkable photos and text, cannot be the work of a stranger to the Valley and those who live here. Not surprisingly, the authors dedicated the book “To those who still live in the shadows but dream of justice.”
Valley of Dreams and Shadows is available for purchase through Amazon site at: