I started photographing and interviewing California’s farm workers in 1960, inspired by an interview of Bard McAllister, a Quaker community organizer that I heard on KPFA-FM, Berkeley. He said that conditions had changed little in the fields and camps since the great documentary photographers Dorothea Lange, Hansel Meith, and others had photographed in the 30s. I decided to follow in their footsteps and traveled the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys documenting farm worker life and work with my cameras and tape recorder.
I didn’t realize until much later how my family history inspired my work. My dad was born in a dugout in Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state. My mother grew up on a hardscrabble cattle ranch. They endured the Great Depression working hard to keep us afloat. At the time, I thought I was drawn to my work in the sixties out of a sense of social justice, but I was also attracted from a place very deep inside myself. My roots too were in the soil and I loved to grow things. I could easily identify with the people I was photographing.
I’d walk into a field or orchard and introduce myself with my “good intentions”. “I think you folks are getting a raw deal. I’d like to photograph you so people in the city will know that and do something about it.” I had faith that people hearing farm workers describing their life and work and seeing my photos would be inspired to action. I was especially moved by the children, not just the miserable babes, but also the ones with remarkable dignity and grace, the ones playing inventively in the fields or around their shacks and camps. Show them to the world and surely there’ll be a response.
At the end of the first year, I took my work to Dorothea Lange, who told me, “This is my family album!” She loaned me a 35mm Contax and gave me a gift to cover film and expenses. I took at least five thousand photographs and recorded many hours of interviews, covering cultivation and harvest work, corporate agribusiness, farm worker communities, migrant camps, and unionization campaigns by the AFL-CIO Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and then the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez.
In 1966 my work culminated in a major and controversial multi-media show at the deYoung Museum, San Francisco—the original Don’t Cry for Me Babey. The Museum Board cancelled it as “too political” but restored it when I threatened a city-wide storefront exhibition to protest censorship.
Photos from my exhibition at University of California, Graduate School of Journalism: Don’t Cry for Me Babey-revisited
Sometimes you work a day . . . radio documentary of farm workers telling their own story