An article by Lisa Reye titled “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn: Rural Migrant Workers,” in the May 2001 issue of Urban Latino, detailed the difficult working conditions of Latinos in the United States, one million of whom describe themselves as farmworkers. The article cataloged the farmworkers’ exploitation, noting that, “On average a worker earns less than $7,500 annually,” and, “Over 85 percent of the multi-billion dollar fruit and vegetable industry depends on the labor of migrant and seasonal farm workers.”
Illustrating this article was the work of Greensboro photographer Chris Johnson.
Johnson has lived in North Carolina since 1983, when he moved to Greensboro from Pennsylvania. After receiving his B.A in 1992 from N.C State University, he studied the history of labor with Leon Fink at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1996. He also audited classes at the Center for Documentary Studies, and became involved with Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), a North Carolina-based non-profit that matches students and farmworkers in an effort to promote social change. Johnson’s work is included in SAF’s traveling exhibition and catalog, Fields Without Borders.
Johnson considers himself an activist photographer who attempts to educate people about the working conditions of farmworkers in North Carolina. His photos show workers boycotting the Mt. Olive pickle company, carrying pesticidal Christmas trees on their heads, working in the fields, or resting in their sub-standard housing. But unlike many contemporary and historical documentary photographers, Johnson makes photographs in solidarity with the workers, for them and with them. Unlike Walker Evans’ gorgeous photograph, “Bedroom, Shrimp Fisherman’s House, Biloxi, Mississippi, 1945,” which shows a carved wooden headboard framing a comfy chenille-covered bed, a crucifix and lace curtains above it, Johnson’s “Mattress, housing for 20 farmworkers, Deep Gap, N.C., 1999” shows a pile of three bare mattresses on top of a 2-inch-by-4-inch slapped-together bed frame, underneath of which are scattered, on a dirty linoleum floor, work boots, receipts, and plastic bags. Evans’ bedroom looks like a fairly comfortable middle-class living environment–warm, clean, naturally lit. Johnson’s is a place for people to flop down into short sleeps between brutal shifts.
“Farmworkers with Christmas Trees, Creston, N.C., 1997” shows five farmworkers, cigarettes dangling from their lips, taking a rest for Johnson’s camera. Leaning against a grove of packaged Christmas trees ready to be shipped off, these men almost beg to be compared with the trees–exposed to pesticides, expendable, torn from their ground, beautiful but temporary. “Food Lion, Timberlyne, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997” shows these same trees at the other end, untied, for sale, leaning against the clean, well-stocked, fluorescent-lit grocery store.
Johnson’s photos are not intended to be art. They may never hang in museums or sell in upscale galleries. Instead, they will continue to be printed in activist, legal, cultural and environmental publications, showing us a portion of the world that is normally hidden from view, and showing us the way it really is, so that we can make it better.