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On Photographing America's Agriculture Industry

A Conversation with Barron Bixler

"The problem is the units of input aren’t abstractions. 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."

This interview was originally published on the defunct photojournalism website DVAFoto on August 11, 2011. It's republished here with permission.

DVAFoto: Why do you photograph the agricultural industry?

Barron Bixler: I’m going to begin with a fairly stark 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?

How you navigate these questions ultimately defines you either as a documentarian or as a propagandist. And that dividing line is becoming increasingly hard to see. Maybe it never really existed.

In my case, I recognize how threatening it can feel to be put under the microscope, and I always strive for a balance that places trust and understanding above an agenda, be it artistic, political or both. When I contact a farm operator—and I use that term deliberately instead of “farmer” because most of my contacts aren’t what most people would think of as farmers in any traditional sense—I describe the central questions the project explores, show them representative examples of my work and make it very clear that the pictures I take probably won’t be something they’ll want to put on the cover of their annual report. I’d say I get 1 taker for every 4 rejections, perhaps even fewer. While I’m working I respect any restrictions on where I can go and what I can shoot. I don’t, on the other hand, allow clauses granting the operator the right to “approve” which pictures can be published. It’s an agreement that’s up-front and respectful of boundaries, and that’s very important to me.

When they see the pictures, the reactions among the people whose land and work I photograph are generally positive. Often there’s indifference and only very rarely is there consternation. Some people just don’t like my pictures on an aesthetic level (everyone’s a critic!). But at least we’re talking about the work, and that’s the point.

While I definitely look at my subjects through a critical lens, I never approach them with a pre-defined narrative or polemic in mind. I start with a set of open questions, a lot of ambivalence and curiosity, a respect for the strengths and limitations of my medium, and no real idea of what I’m going to uncover along the way. Sure, I shape the outcome through the thousands of little decisions inherent in the photographic process, but I’m more interested in presenting my pictures with minimal interference and letting people interpret them as their experience, values, taste, etc. dictate. You could just as easily look at one of my pictures of cotton fields that stretch out to infinity and see in them the apex of agricultural productivity, and who would I be to correct you? In fact, I welcome contradictory readings of my work and am sometimes wary of people who automatically assume my views are in lockstep with theirs because they shop at their local farmers market every Saturday morning. I think I’m happiest when everyone’s a little uncomfortable.

Why is it important to photograph the farms where you can't get permission?

If I’m particularly interested in shooting a location and can’t get formal permission to do so, I’ll explore other avenues to make it happen—most of which are protected by state and federal law but have been steadily eroded over the past decade. In California, a criminal trespass must involve an intent to interfere with or obstruct the business activities associated with that property. Even if you’re found guilty of a criminal trespass on those grounds—which for a photographer such as myself would be unlikely since your mere presence on the property is neither interfering with nor obstructing the business activities of the farm—chances are your first two offenses wouldn’t even be charged as a misdemeanor. It’s shocking, then, that an early version of the “Florida farm bill” (S.B. 1246) that’s gotten so much attention lately sought to make the very act of photographing a farm from a public highway without the farm operator’s express written consent a “felony of the first degree.” No shit. And in practice, despite the legal protections afforded me in California (for now), I can’t count the number of times I’ve been chased, detained, intimidated, threatened physically or had dogs unleashed on me for the simple act of taking a photograph of a cluster of chemical tanks or a row of nut trees.

But the question of a photographers’ rights is less about me and the way I approach my work—or even about photographers in general—than it is about fundamental democratic principles. You know the old philosophical riddle, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Journalists, photographers, film makers and activists are often the only witnesses around to hear the trees as they fall (and there seem to be a lot of them falling these days). If these people are stripped of their rights to record and disseminate the things they see and hear, I can’t imagine the forces that would become inscrutable to us, the things we’d allow to go on right under our noses, right in our own back yards. Documentary is in the public interest, and documentarians are a crucial part of our public conscience and consciousness. We need to protect them.

And could you talk about the style and content of your photos.  You've been very careful to eliminate the people, despite talking about the migrants in your introduction.  It seems to me like you're indicting the machinery of the agricultural industry separate from the people.  The people, in a lot of ways, can't choose to do any differently--technology drives the operations and if you don't use industrial agricultural practices, your operation will die.  Is that correct?  What are you showing by eliminating the people?  Why not photograph the people?

You’re right, the machinery—or more precisely, technology—of agriculture is absolutely central to this project. But I don’t mean machinery in a strictly literal sense. It’s a metaphor for control—over land, animals, crops and people, but also over things like infrastructure, inputs, financing, production, distribution, marketing, information, regulation, policy and, in the case of genetically modified organisms, the very fabric of life. Incidentally, certain corporations have positioned themselves for nearly perfect vertical integration along this entire system.

So yes, I’ve avoided photographing people in this project and emphasized instead the technologies they’ve created, profited from or been controlled by, depending on where you stand. But my intent isn’t to suggest that we’re powerless against these technologies or that they’re all inherently bad. After all, they’re systems of our own making, and if we designed them we can certainly redesign them.

Ultimately though, my San Joaquin Valley project shows these technologies in various states of decay—and perhaps the larger observation here is that no system of control lasts forever.

And what sort of audience is your work intended for?  Your approach is very descriptive in a way that communicates the subtleties of change created by industrial agriculture.  It seems to me like the general public might see some of your pictures and just think, "Oh, that's what farms look like." and not think anything more.  Is that a valid response?

The way a viewer decodes a photograph depends entirely on the context of that viewing, and that’s true no matter the subject or the photographer’s personal set of concerns. I don’t feel a need to orchestrate that response or lead people in one direction or another. Nor do I feel a need to convince them that what I’m doing is important or even good.

My pictures break many accepted rules of landscape photography. I’m shooting 35mm (yes I still shoot film). The film stock I use is washed out and grainy. I’m often shooting in the middle of the day in flat, diffuse sunlight. I don’t use a tripod (at least for this project). My subjects are often unremarkable or ugly or both, the kinds of things most people would understandably ignore as they hurtle down the I-5 at 79.5 mph. So I wouldn’t be surprised if those deliberate decisions push the limits of what people expect to see when they hear there’s a photo exhibition in town on farming in the San Joaquin Valley. Plus there’s a certain matter-of-factness about these pictures that someone could easily pass over without a second look.

(I will say that in terms of the viewing experience the work benefits from being viewed on a wall as opposed to a monitor and as a body of work as opposed to individual pictures, but you can’t always control those factors.)

At the end of the day though you do hope that the project resonates with viewers, and that they’ll be curious about, rather than turned off by, some of the unorthodox formal or conceptual decisions you’ve made. I’d say that the most intense responses I’ve gotten have been both from people living in urban areas who are interested in the food system and from people who live in the rural areas where the project is based, whether or not they’re directly involved in agribusiness or agriculture.

In other ways—pictures like the barren fields, the malformed tree cut off halfway—your work reads like an elegy for what was lost.  It's difficult to photograph what you're trying to show, which I take to be the long-term consequences of problematic methods.  How do you show long-term shifts in the environment, the farms, the people, the animals, etc?

My pictures are absolutely more elegiac than cautionary. I think conscientious photographers who record pristine wilderness landscapes seem to warn, “This is what we have and we’ll lose it if we don’t change our ways.” That kind of work is incredibly important in terms of conservation, but I’m personally more interested in examining what’s already been lost—or is in the process of being lost.

The question I have to deal with is, how do you establish a point of reference to illustrate a complex and incremental process of degradation? Barring a pristine historical record (or a time machine), that’s difficult. So I don’t worry too much about drawing a direct comparison to the way farming used to be—which would be dangerous anyway because it’s too easy to romanticize the past and ignore all the things that have always been fraught or problematic. I don’t put a lot of stock in golden ages.

I think the best counterpoint to my pictures is the mythic, high-gloss version of agriculture we’re force fed by product packaging designers, marketing agencies, PR firms, chambers of commerce, lobbyists, policy makers, bureaucrats, politicians and, of course, agricultural corporations. Our methods of farming are what they are. The stakes are high, the scale is massive and we’ve had to make tough decisions that continue to carry enormous costs. I’d even concede that many of those decisions were the right decisions at the time (but don’t push me too far on that). What troubles me is that we’re unwilling to face the consequences of those decisions squarely and accept our food system for what it is: a large-scale, globally resonant, unequivocally industrial enterprise.

In this sense, I don’t really see my pictures as making a value judgment about our chosen agricultural methods per se—and certainly not about the hard and very important work farm operators, farmers and farm workers do to put food on our tables. Instead, the project aims to inject some complexity back into our understanding of what it means to farm, to grow, to irrigate, to spray, to produce, to package, to ship, to consume, to migrate, to settle and, finally, to live.

And on more local note, I also hope that the pictures communicate something of the San Joaquin Valley’s peculiar, sometimes agoraphobic, beauty.

Barron Bixler is a San Francisco-based documentary photographer. Set out in stark, unflinching images, his work explores marginal landscapes and communities, vernacular architecture and built environments located throughout the American West. Recent projects in this vein include: “A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley”; “Oregon: A Field Survey”; and “L.A. Environs.”

Bixler’s images of industrial agriculture will appear in a solo exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum in Fresno, California later this year. Entitled “A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley,” the exhibition will run from August 19, 2011 to January 2, 2012.