In the Fields of the North

At a book talk on May 23, photojournalist David Bacon discussed the power of photography and journalism to spark social change and the difficulties that migrant farm workers face. ​

In the Fields of the North

The cover of David Bacon's latest book, which explores the hardships faced by migrant farm workers. (Photo: David Bacon.)

"Advocating for social change is part of a long tradition of social documentary photography.”

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)


UCLA International Institute, June 2, 2017 — David Bacon, a photographer and journalist, visited UCLA on May 23 to discuss migration, photojournalism and activism. His remarks highlighted the hardships endured by migrant farm workers and the role photography can play in spurring social change The event was co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies, the UCLA Labor Center, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


Looking at migrant farm workers from unexpected angles


Bacon started his presentation by displaying photos from his new book, “In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte” (University of California Press, 2017). The book juxtaposes photographs of migrant agricultural workers with interviews and essays that highlight the injustices that they experience on a daily basis. “I named the book ‘In the Fields of the North’ to show that I was coming from the perspective of the Mexican people and of migrant farm workers from countries south of the U.S.A,” he said.


“We must take photographs from every angle but the navel,” said Bacon, quoting the artist Alexander Rodchenko. While the quote refers to the need for a variety of points of view in the arts and photography, the speaker appears to have taken the advice quite literally: photographs in the book are often taken from below, at an angle which looks up at the workers toiling in the fields. Through the use of this unusual angle, the images confront the viewer with the visible discomfort of migrant workers, who spend their days bent into uncomfortable positions while performing manual labor.


Photos in Bacon’s book are not restricted to workers in the fields. Some depict people sleeping in their cars because the dry season has left them homeless. One photograph shows a single mother and her children sleeping in a makeshift tent on a hillside in San Diego —her wages weren’t sufficient to pay for rent or cover the expense of returning to Mexico. “These show the complete lack of stability that people’s lives have and the systematic exploitation of those who are working in the fields,” said Bacon, emphasizing the brutal consequences of low, inconsistent wages.


“Still, for all of this, people have strong community ties and organize,” he said, pointing to pictures of indigenous migrant farm workers organizing and enjoying community festivals with music, dance and food. He noted that the gatherings often also focus on unionizing and planning for protests and strikes. “These images and words push back against rising racism,” said the speaker. “These photographs [are] an opportunity to present [migrant farm workers] as complete human beings.”


David Bacon discusses his new book at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)


Reuniting photography and social activism


“Photographers today are told to be objective and neutral and stand at a distance,” Bacon lamented. “However, we are not meant to be objective. We are partisan and want our photographs to reflect reality.”


The speaker explained that instead of searching for aesthetic beauty, as he is expected to do, he focuses on finding unique and unusual subjects who will inspire dialogue on social issues. “Unlike the average photographer, I'm not an unbiased observer,” said Bacon to the crowd. “I’m not neutral. I'm firmly on the side of undocumented workers and on the side of the people in the U.S. and Mexico fighting for workers’ rights.”


“In the past, many photographers were political activists and were intimately connected to workers’ rights, social activism and fighting for justice,” Bacon explained. “Advocating for social change is part of a long tradition of social documentary photography.” His hope is that his own work will aid in strengthening the long-standing partnership between photography and activism. Bacon also said he hoped to inspire young, aspiring photojournalists to bring seldom-discussed injustices to light.


“The documentation of struggle is what's missing from mainstream American photography,” Bacon concluded. “Not necessarily the depiction of reality, but a vision for change and what that change may look like. Now, photographers are looking from a distance. There’s an alternative to [this distance]: engagement and social commitment.”