Tag Archive: agriculture
We’ve written before about the so-called “Ag-Gag” bills that make illegal unauthorized video and photography of agricultural operations in various states. Today, the New York Times has an update on the increasing number of these types of laws throughout the United States: Videos show cruelty on farm, and taping becomes the crime. The NYT’s reporting connects bills across the country to a business advocacy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. The organization creates model legislation for state legislatures to adopt such as The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which would prohibit video and still photography of livestock farms and puts violators on a “terrorist registry.”
Though no laws including a terrorist registry provision have yet been passed, Iowa, Utah and Missouri have passed laws that make it illegal to document operations on farms and agricultural operations without authorization. Indiana and Tennessee will soon vote on similar laws, and California, Pennsylvania, and other states are debating similar measures. The Indiana law would require prospective employees to disclose ties to animal rights groups during the hiring process. Animal rights groups say that these laws make it impossible to document animal cruelty on farms and ranches. Opponents of bills have managed to stall or stop Ag-Gag bills in New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.
I’m not sure what first got me to look at Laura El-Tantawy‘s I’ll Die For You, but I’m glad I did. It’s an ambitious attempt to photograph and tell the story of farmer suicides in India. The situation is staggering. From El-Tantawy’s statement about the project:
Over the past 15 years, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Many had borrowed money through government lending schemes or private lenders to plant more efficient crops, but could not pay off their debts. Because of the extremely fast transition has undergone — from a rural to an industrial, urban economy with an open market — farmers have been confronted by immense social and economic problems.
To tell this story, El-Tantawy uses archival materials, strong portraiture of the women left behind, and a visual examination of the land and place. It’s a refreshing approach to something so difficult to photograph, and it’s a departure from much of her other work (which you should check out while you’re at it). I thought I’d ask her a few questions about the project and her approach. Our conversation is below:
What got you started on the project? What drew you to the issue? How did you begin work for the project (such as identifying potential subjects, approaching subjects for the piece)?
The start of the project coincided with me taking part in the prestigious Reflexions Masterclass. It’s a two-year photography seminar directed by Italian photographer Giorgia Fiorio and French Curator Gabrial Bauret. The workshop is based around developing a photographer’s visual language and story-telling capabilities by assigning a series of themes that participants use as inspiration to build on a new body of work or continue to develop an ongoing series. At the time the theme assigned was “faces”. I really struggled with this because all my immediate ideas were centered around portraiture, which I always considered as an area of weakness for me. I felt a strong portrait should convey an emotion and lend some insight into the subject’s character, frame of mind or emotional state – this I had never accomplished well. Meanwhile, as I am thinking about this, I come across an article about farmers committing suicide in India. Everything seemed to come together at that moment for me, in a way that I can honestly say I never reacted to anything else, subject or story. There was something different about this work from the start. So from the moment of its initiation, this project was very unique for me.
I went to India with nothing but the intention to meet the families and photograph their faces. This was my main motivation. I wanted to understand why they were committing suicide, such a brutal act and one with finite consequences. Having been in India before, I always saw India as a country where people really work hard to live in order to avert death. It was the country of vibrant colors, crowded streets – a country where life is seen at its best and sometimes worst, but life and living dominate. Death was not associated with India in my mind, which is why I believe I reacted so instinctively and vigorously to the suicide of farmers, which ultimately led me to think about my own grandfather, who was a farmer all his life. Perhaps you can see there were just too many elements here that led me to pursue this story as passionately and seriously as I did.
In India I landed with ideas, but I had nothing in hand that could translate my ideas into reality. I wanted to shoot the work on film (which I had never done before). I bought the film from a friend of mine living in India and borrowed his Mamiya. He also offered to send his studio assistant with me to meet the families and she became my team-mate at that stage in the project, doing what I consider half the work: translation.
When we left Mumbai we had nothing but the determination to meet these families and hear their story. Once we arrived in the village we had identified as the starting point, we just asked around and things started to work out.
We approached the families with total honesty explaining I had come from London and wanted to hear their story. At that moment the work as I had visualized it only centered around documenting the female survivors and making an archive of photographs of the men who died. The idea of “Man and Land” came later and after much searching for a visual approach to show the strong bond between the people and the land they inhabit, which I believed was ultimately the cause of these suicides.
What was your strategy for telling this story visually? I imagine it was a difficult piece to develop, photographically–the events happened well in the past and the causes of these suicides are abstract economic and psychological notions that don’t present themselves in a straightforward visual way.
Intimacy – all I could think about was intimacy. Given the sensitivity of the issue in and of itself and the delicate nature of addressing issues related to life and death, I felt that I had to move slowly, but somehow give a sense of intimacy. It was imperative to me to attach a face to the suicides and not follow a conventional approach that would deprive the story of emotion or developing a relationship with the women survivors and the men who died. I wanted to focus on the faces to make the suicides real to myself and to viewers and not just portray this as something abstract that could happen anywhere to anyone. I felt the urge and the responsibility to anchor this in reality, or at least what I perceived as reality (we all have our different realities or interpretations of it). For me a more photojournalistic approach would not have told this story the way I felt it and instinctively reacted to it: the deep emotion, sorrow and absolute sense of anguish and deprivation these men must have felt at the time of the suicides, all feelings that were carried onto the women now surviving them. People died – thousands of them – and I chose to tell this story. I was responsible for what people would think and feel when they see the pictures. This was always at the back of my head.
The suicides are continuing to happen, so this is not an old story, but very much an ongoing one. In the past 15 years, more than 250 thousand farmers have committed suicide and the numbers are still rising.
How did you get the women to be part of the project? In parts of India I’ve visited, women tend to be hidden from the public and I imagine they initially did not want to be photographed. What about the issue of suicide? In some societies, suicide is a very shameful act. Was there a societal or cultural stigma that you had to overcome in order to get people to even talk about the suicides? How did you approach that issue with your subjects?
A few things could account for me being able to gain access to the families. Perhaps the fact that I was a woman myself allowed the women to gain some sense of comfort around me, but I think ultimately the main reason I was able to talk to them is because they wanted someone to talk to – they wanted to be heard and in all cases helped (which I shamefully explained I was not in a position to do). They wanted their struggle to be acknowledged and the fact I had come from an entirely different country to meet them and understand their plight probably made them feel some sort of respect and seriousness towards me.
Yes, there is a huge stigma attached to suicide. You must remember India is a predominantly Hindu country and suicide is not accepted within the Hindu belief. Surprisingly, this was not an issue that took much of the conversation I had with any of the families I met. It was about survival and for the men who had committed suicide, living had become an impossibility. Tradition among the conservative and modest farming communities dictates men are the main providers. Girls get married because their fathers can pay their dowry and are of a good reputation in the village, so once a man starts to sink below the expected status in the community, he starts to be overcome by shame. Status and community standing play a big role in the decision to commit suicide in these villages and I think they would in any village in the world. Farmers are a unique breed and their work and lifestyle are about modesty, pride and survival under the harshest of conditions. But I think if any of these elements start to shake, their whole existence comes into question.
Read on »
We wrote previously about Florida and Iowa lawmakers trying to make it illegal to record or photograph agricultural operations without the farm owner’s consent. Now, the Iowa bill has been signed into law, making it illegal to access farms without the owner’s consent and further making it illegal lie on farm job applications in order to gain access to farms. While the law no longer has language specifically addressing photography or video recording, both opponents and supporters of the law say that its intent is to prevent videos of farm operations from being made. Under the law, fraudulently entering a farm would be punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a $1,500 fine. Penalties increase for subsequent offenses. Activists have vowed to continue making videos of alleged animal cruelty, while supporters of the law say it strikes a balance in protecting farmers without preventing workers from reporting animal abuse through preexisting channels.
More states continue to press for similar laws. The Utah State House of Representatives recently passed Utah HB 187, which makes it a crime to record images or sounds of farm activity without the farm owner’s consent. Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and New York, are also considering such legislation.
As before, if you live in any of these states, contact your legislators.
Earlier this year, we wrote about two US states trying to outlaw unauthorized photos of farm operations (The Florida was changed in a few important ways after our initial report). That’s been the most tweeted and shared post in the history of dvafoto, and generated a great conversation on the value and imperative of photography of American agriculture. Of the many comments and messages I got from that post, one of the most intriguing was from a California-based photographer named Barron Bixler. He’s been working on a project on agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, A New Pastoral, and wanted to start a dialog about these issues. As he said in his introductory email, “I’m sick of shouting into the wind about these issues and would love to start a meaningful conversational thread about it with someone who’s similarly implicated.” So that’s what we’ve got here below. Be sure to check out the rest of Bixler’s work, and if you’re near Fresno, California, between August 19 and January 6, 2012, you can see A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley in a solo exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum.
dvafoto: Why do you photograph the agricultural industry?
Barron Bixler: I’m going to begin with a fairly provocative comparison, so bear with me.
Last week I stumbled across a talk given by photography luminary Fred Ritchin in which he quotes one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders on the power of photography to document events that would otherwise go unseen: “Without a photograph we’ve never been able to prove a massacre….If we have no photographs, there are no massacres.”
Reading this quote within the context of agriculture, many will rightly ask what human rights abuse has to do with where produce comes from. The short answer is, more than you’d think. In September 2010, the “guest worker” recruiting firm Global Horizons was charged with operating the largest forced agricultural labor ring ever prosecuted by the federal government. Sadly, the Global Horizons case is anomalous only in its scale. Google “florida agricultural slavery” and you’ll get a cross section of entries that expose the high cost of cheap produce.
My own approach to photographing industrial agriculture operations in California is decidedly ambivalent, and my focus is on the land rather than the people who work it, but in the back of my mind there’s always this same nagging question: what price have we paid (and do we continue to pay) to farm in this massive, industrial way? Even Monsanto—the company that 50 years ago repurposed Agent Orange into commercial pesticides and has been a driving force behind the Green Revolution—has tacitly admitted that indiscriminate and ongoing pesticide use is probably not environmentally sustainable. So when we look at our industrial food system as it’s existed since the 1940s, and at the downstream social and environmental consequences of that system, what we’re left with is a fairly disquieting picture.
Through our federal ag and trade policy over the last century, we’ve engineered our food system in a way that measures success as a ratio of units of input to units of output. And while this all sounds good and highly rational in that 1940s-systems-engineering-fetish sort of way, the problem is the units of input aren’t abstract concepts or inert materials. They’re farmers and farm workers. They’re animals. They’re entire communities and ecosystems. All of which we’ve placed on the same level in our equation of success as John Deere tractors and gallons of petrochemical fertilizer.
At the same time, as consumers of food, you and I gobble up the seductive myth of the independent family farmer and allow ourselves to indulge, if momentarily, the belief that Hidden Valley Ranch is an actual place tucked away in the rolling coastal hills of California. (For a case in point, read The Story of Hidden Valley.)
Just today I passed a billboard in Oakland, California proclaiming that “99% of California Dairy Farms are Family Owned.” A quick visit to the California Milk Advisory Board website confirms the source of this latest campaign. Watch some of CMAB’s gorgeous short documentaries about family-run dairies and you might be willing to forget, just for a minute, well documented cases of migrant dairy workers drowning in toxic manure evaporation lagoons the size of football fields or official reports from the USDA, EPA and others about the role industrial dairies and feedlots play in global climate change and the pollution of local air, soil and water.
If nothing else, I hope my pictures of California agriculture destabilize our cozy vision of where most of our food comes from—and more importantly, what it leaves behind. After all, if we have no photographs to show how things are, there’s nothing a good marketing agency or PR crisis response firm or government information ministry can’t get us to swallow: whether it’s rounding up political dissidents for a massacre or the latest formulation of Roundup PowerMAX®.
You say you work both with permission of the farmers and without. Do the farmers you work with know that you have such a critical stance on their practices?
A few months back I posted a question on Twitter to the effect of, “As a documentarian, where do one’s loyalties lie? To ‘objectivity,’ or to the people who trust you to photograph them?” The question was prompted by a piece on the NYT Lens blog called “Bonding with Subjects in Harm’s Way” in which Finbar O’Reilly recounts personal experiences photographing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
For documentary photographers, these are the large and rather prickly horns of the dilemma that defines our discipline: to what extent can or should you strive for objectivity when your subjects are engaged in practices that are, at best, ethically muddy? How do you separate out the complicity of the individual from the larger system of which he or she is a part? How does your empathy toward or dependence on your subjects (in Mr. O’Reilly’s case this most certainly was a matter of life or death; in my case it’s more a matter of access and good will) affect your capacity to remain dispassionate and brutally honest? Who or what are your pictures ultimately in service of?
Read on »
The NPPA reports that there have been some changes to Florida farm bill SB 1246 (previously) that would make illegal photography or recordings of farm operations without the written permission of farm owners. The Florida Senate Committee on Agriculture approved the bill with two significant amendments: the crime has been changed from felony to misdemeanor, and the proposed bill no longer makes it a crime to photograph farm operations from public places, limiting the scope of the bill only to recordings made while trespassing. These are important and positive changes in the legislation, but the prospect of increasing limits on photography remains troubling.
Incidentally, our previous coverage of the bill was our most tweeted and shared post in the short history of dvafoto, racking up more than a thousand social media links, thanks in no small part to a tweet by Michael Pollan. I’m glad to see the issue get exposure outside of photography circles.
Sec. 9.1(a)(2) makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility” which was taken without permission of the owner.
Sec. 14.1.b makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the crop operation which was” taken without permission of the owner. -from Iowa House Bill HF589, passed March 17, 2011
We’ve covered states’ moves to criminalize the recording of police activity previously. Now, bills introduced in Florida and Iowa state legislatures would make photography, video, or audio recording of agricultural operations illegal without written permission of the farm’s owner. In Florida, violations would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison, according to the proposed Senate Bill 1246 (SB 1246). A similar law (HF589) passed the Iowa state House of Representatives. In a Washington Post article, agricultural industry representatives and lawmakers say the Iowa bill is intended to stop animal rights organizations from filming undercover videos that misrepresent farming operations. Wilton Simpson, a Florida farmer, says that the bill is needed to protect the intellectual property of his farming practices.
Both bills, frighteningly, don’t limit their protections to images or recordings taken while on farm property. For instance, section 3.7 of Iowa’s HF589 defines a “crop operation” as “a location where a crop is maintained, including but not limited to a crop field, orchard, nursery, greenhouse, garden, elevator, seed house, barn, or warehouse.” Under my reading of the bill (and I’m not a legal scholar), these aspects of a farm operation could not legally be photographed without permission, even if the recording or images are taken from public property. The Iowa bill would further criminalize anyone who possesses or distributes such images, reversing a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that allows news organizations to distribute recordings even if the recordings are obtained illegally. The NPPA says the Florida is similarly broad and would criminalize images or recordings taken from a public space.
If you’re in Florida or Iowa, contact your legislators.
UPDATE (22 March 2011): The Florida bill has been amended in two important ways: the crime has been changed from felony to misdemeanor, and the proposed bill no longer makes it a crime to photograph farm operations from public places, limiting the scope of the bill only to recordings made while trespassing.
(via the NPPA Advocacy Committee blog, which reports the NPPA has contacted lawmakers in Iowa regarding the bills)