The Hands That Feed Us
Posted June 2021
Originally posted in 2018
Matt Black’s photos from California’s Central Valley share the struggles of migrant farm workers. The vast majority of the country’s estimated 2.4 million farmworkers are immigrants, many of them undocumented. Passage of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would grant them a way to obtain legal status, workplace protections, and eventual citizenship.
Scan Matt Black's photographs of migrant farm workers in California, and you might assume the black-and-white images come from a textbook or museum -- documentation from a bygone era. A man in a sun hat kneels under grapevines, straining to pluck the small orbs. In the corner of an outhouse with no running water, a shirtless man washes off a day's work by dumping cups of water over his head. A small child stands in between rows of crops, too young to understand her place in the world, but old enough to help her family toil in the field. The conditions appear harsh, the people seem weathered and exhausted.
Look a little closer, and you'll understand that Matt's images are far from relics of a bygone era. In fact, they date from 2015, captured in the vast agricultural region of California known as the Central Valley. The images chronicle the plight of America's modern-day migrant farm workers - the means by which America gets its food today.
"The fundamental feeling that I'm trying to create [is] that this is real, that this exists," Matt says. "This might be surprising to see, but this is a part of our life, of our experience in California and in the Unites States more broadly."
The Central Valley's farming industry, largely dependent on immigrants from Mexico, generates billions of dollars annually. Yet poverty rates are staggeringly high. According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, 45 percent of farm workers in the Central Valley's Fresno County -- the country's "most productive" agricultural county -- are food insecure.
A Central Valley native and resident, Matt is uniquely positioned to shine a light on these issues and to give voice to those in this region whose circumstances won't permit them to have one. Behind every photograph is a conversation and a story.
"I felt duty-bound to deal with those sorts of issues and stories in my work, to be a representative of this place, of this side of the country that really rarely get seen," he says.
Matt points to his cache of photos documenting grape-picking for raisin production as an example. Almost all of the United States' raisins are grown near Fresno in the Central Valley. Matt describes grape-picking as particularly arduous and fast-paced. His photos were taken under blinding sun, with temperatures routinely above 100 degrees. Workers are shown caked in a mixture of grape juice and dust, rushing to fill buckets. Matt says workers often encounter snakes and spiders, seeking shelter in the shade of the vines. For each grape-filled bucket, he says, farm workers earn 20 to 25 cents.
"[It takes] so much human exertion and, frankly, suffering to produce raisins, this little snack fruit that we all kind of like. There's this whole other side to it. None of which is really ever seen or appreciated. It's taken for granted."
These men and women are the ones feeding our country, yet they often can't afford to feed themselves. Matt's photos bring this irony to light.
"It still seems to be widely unknown and underappreciated how interconnected we are with Mexico and other countries that are sending their youngest, their strongest, and their most resourceful people to do this work for us," Matt says. "There would be no food grown in America without immigrant labor."