On photographing America’s agricultural industry – a conversation with Barron Bixler

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?