Ken Light is a documentary photographer and professor at the Center for Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has appeared in books, magazines, exhibitions and a variety of media, digital and motion picture.
Melanie Light is a writer, publisher and editor. She was the founding executive director of Fotovision, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the international community of documentary photographers. She is also the recipient of grants from the Soros Documentary Fund and the Rosenberg Foundation.
Ken and Melanie’s most recent collaboration, Valley of Shadows and Dreams, depicts the land and lives encapsulated in the Central Valley region of California. While this work was on display at the Oakland Museum, the Lights partnered with PAN to host PAN’s 30th Anniversary celebration at the museum. Because PAN has done a great deal of work in the Central Valley over the years, Ken’s photographs and the text panels written by Melanie were a fitting backdrop for the occasion. Building on our common ground, we sat down with Ken and Melanie to learn a little more about them, their work and their experiences in the Central Valley.
PAN: Ken and Melanie, what inspired you to head to the Central Valley farm country to take on your recent project?
We had been one of those California families that just drives through the Valley as fast as we could until Melanie ended up doing research for another piece of writing. She had to go through the birth and death records in Visalia and got to handle the giant ledgers filled with loopy fountain pen handwriting, and she saw how people had come from all over the world to be a part of the California Dream. She went to the Tulare library to look through the newspapers to find information and ended up following the story of the cotton strike near Corcoran in 1933. The fight was bitter, violent and both the growers and pickers went at it in full.
When she started her drive back home, she started to really look at what was around. What she saw were a great number of brand new housing developments going into prime agricultural land. She didn’t know that moment was the peak of a housing boom that would bust within a year and create the worst conditions since that cotton strike in 1933. All she knew is that it seemed very strange and that no one seemed to be in charge of managing the need for agricultural land against the need for housing stock right where so much of the country’s food is grown.
PAN: You open with a dedication, “To those who still live in the shadows but dream of justice,” which seems to expand upon the book’s title. Can you tell me more about what you mean?
The title of the book was Ken’s idea, and it perfectly expresses our experience there in several ways. It alludes to the California Dream and hints that not all is well in paradise. The bright light of that dream of a better life; of riches; of plenty, casts a long shadow. But it also alludes to the geography of the valley and the great light one can experience there. It’s funny to think about — the bright sunlight tends to flatten everything out, but the clouds define and highlight what is there — lots of room for metaphorical play.
PAN: Throughout the book I noticed a common theme of attempts at urban development in areas that were once farmland. One picture that stood out to me was of a desolate cul-de-sac appearing to be an abandoned road to nowhere. What were you able to learn about what caused these kinds of situations?
We started out focusing on the housing boom, but as we kept asking how and why it was happening, the story kept getting bigger and more complicated. Cause and effect kept turning back on itself, and we had to go back and learn a lot of California and labor history, too. In the end, we understood that the problem is the same problem all Americans face, now that the curtain has been drawn back and we see how the government has been debased by special interest groups. Just as in the banking industry, the agricultural industry has put the profit motive before the good of the people and land they manage.
We finally concluded that the state and federal government are pretty weak in the face of the special interest groups and that the powerbase in the valley is a closed system with a great deal of cronyism. For example, the state or city planners will go ahead and allow a big development to be placed out at the edges of a city instead of demanding that they infill open spaces in the cities.
PAN: What did you learn most from visiting these towns and talking to the people in the Central Valley about what it is like to live there?
There are so many stories and people. Melanie had a wonderful farm tour with Rick Cosyns, we observed the Water March of 2008, and we attended the Immigration Day Celebration in 2006. Interviewing Yolanda Prada was a powerful moment as she cried and told her life story. We saw families who had made a happy home in the valley despite the incredible stresses of low-paying work and family spread out between two countries.
We saw a lot of suffering, too. We were struck that the energy, awareness and dedication to labor issues has been dissipated from the glory days of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s work. Most people are just consumed with making a living. We were really impressed by the amazing capacity of the workers to produce so much.
PAN: Ken, one of my favorite photographs depicts a dimly lit scene with a couple dancing. Can you share with us anything about the story of the couple or the scene you are capturing?
I had asked a community organizer who was guiding me where might I find a place where workers go and relax on the weekend. He pointed me to the Fiesta Club and they were very kind to allow me to photograph. It was a challenge — the club was dark and the dance floor crowded with couples dancing close to the live 15-piece Mexican band. I was waiting and hoping for that split second when someone might step into the light and express an instant when time stops and dreams, hopes and connections help hard lives fade away for a moment.
PAN: As you know PAN has done Drift Catcher trainings helping individuals test for toxic chemicals and supported key campaigns to create buffer/protection zones around schools. In many of the pictures throughout your book we see fields being covered in pesticides. Do you have any personal connections to pesticides or been directly affected by them?
Sadly, we’re sure we have a great deal of pesticide in our systems that we don’t even know about. We try to eat pesticide-free food, but it seems strange to both of us that the norm is for food to have these toxins in them and that one has to hunt for clean food.
Ken worked for the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley long ago and knows what precautions should be taken, and he continually was upset to see people spraying pesticides without any safety gear, gloves, or chemical suits. One of the photos that he took is of a helicopter outside of Fresno spraying a field. The pilot landed the helicopter on a platform in the field, and the workers filled it with pesticides, no masks, no gloves, in tee shirts, no sense of any danger to themselves. The copter took off and sprayed and Ken could see the chemicals drift over passing cars along the road. No one was concerned or even warning that spraying was happening.
Melanie visited Irma and Francisco Barazza and their family in Lindsey, where there are huge orange groves. This family had been living in their home for at least fifteen years and had a great deal of pride in it. Over the years they had improved it quite a bit and it was the nicest house on the street. Here are some field notes about that visit:
Irma talks to me extensively about the spraying of pesticides. She says that sometimes they can smell the chemicals so much she can hardly stand to go outside. They are supposed to spray at night or at 2 a.m., but they don’t always do that. Even though they keep all the windows closed they have to use the air conditioner, which just pulls in the chemical-laced air. The groves are all within ½ mile of their house and the schools are within ¼ mile of the orange groves. Francisco and she are working to get people to sign a petition to the Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner which is attempting to get some regulation of the use of pesticides near schools. Their flyer says that Tulare County ranks second for agricultural production in the nation and third in pesticide use in California. They feel angry and that the respiratory problems in the family are, in part, due to the spraying of pesticides.
PAN: There is one particularly powerful photo of a mother holding her child born with a cleft lip and seizures with the description that she was born near a toxic waste dump. Can you tell us more?
In Kettleman City, the middle of this important farmland, lies the largest toxic dump west of Alabama. For decades all manner of toxic substances have been brought to the other two toxic dumps in the valley and to Kettleman—a place thought not to be in anyone’s backyard, except for the fifteen hundred Latino farm workers who began living there after the California Aqueduct was built in the 1970s. Last year the Kettleman site, owned by Waste Management, accepted 356,000 tons of hazardous waste, consisting of tens of thousands of chemical compounds, including asbestos, pesticides, caustics, petroleum products, and 11,000 tons of material contaminated with PCBs, known carcinogens. A great deal of this came from the coastal consumers who have outlawed the storage of toxins in their own neighborhoods.
These poisons have been accumulating and seeping into the earth right next to farmland and the California Aqueduct, despite numerous orders by the EPA to clean up the site, the most recent in July 2010. Plans are underway to dump 500,000 tons a year of sewage sludge from Los Angeles there as well. A hornet’s nest of politics and old-school leadership has kept cleanup efforts at bay.
Over a 15-month period in 2007 and 2008, six children of mothers from Kettleman City were born with serious birth defects, including cleft palates, deformities and brain damage. Half of those infants subsequently died. However, the scientific method cannot directly correlate these abnormalities to any specific cause. However, scientists are calling for new ways to analyze these clusters, including an approach called “cumulative impacts,” which examines the multitude of environmental concerns in a community and the variety of different ways the body handles these assaults.
PAN: Has this project changed or reinforced your opinions of the agricultural landscape of the Central Valley or how you will choose your next meal?
We came into this project not understanding just how different the culture in the Central Valley is from Coastal California. In the Bay Area where we live, people are rewarded for being iconoclastic and ready to try something new, but in the Valley the status quo is very strong, and people are punished for bucking it, though that fabric is fraying a bit. Simple economic pressure as well as some acceptance of the need to honor environmental concerns has moved some growers to start to try more sustainable ways of growing. Central and coastal Californians HAVE to come together because our fate is tied together. We will never be able to solve the environmental and agricultural and labor issues unless we understand each other.
In a way, it is more important to grasp this fact than it is to understand how toxic the food we eat can be. Of course, we are much more aware of how food is grown and have stepped up our practices of eating pesticide free food, but, honestly, we were doing a lot of that before. And we will even go out on a limb to say that if the only take-away from this project is that one needs to be careful about the food one buys, readers have missed the point. The real lesson is that we must be politically and socially invested in the food we consume. Because food is produced through a complicated social and economic matrix, it really means we must create a just and equitable society. We must participate in our democracy to protect the vast majority of the people from the special interests of the few. PAN has really been a wonderful role model in this way as they have partnered with local people all over the globe to empower them. PAN understands that good, clean food is a symptom of a healthy society.
What particular issue of PAN’s work do you feel most connected with?
The idea that we might someday have a pesticide-free agricultural landscape, where faming takes into account the hands that work in the fields, and we have a responsible culture that puts people first.