BERKELEY, CA – Color photographs of farm workers in the fields, orchards, and labor camps of California's Central Valley have won Jeremy Rue, 25, the 2007 Dorothea Lange Fellowship. Rue is a student at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
The $4,000 award is in memory of Dorothea Lange, known for landmark photographic work with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting farm families migrating West in search of work during the Great Depression, and her landmark image popularly known as “Migrant Mother.” Lange, who was one of the founders of Aperture magazine in 1952, also often worked with her husband, UC Berkeley professor and labor economist Paul Taylor. Today, UC Berkeley's Office of Public Affairs administers the Lange Fellowship.
Mimi Chakarova, a lecturer in photography at the journalism school and a 2003 Lange winner, recommended Rue for the prize. "This is a story," she said of Rue and his photogrpahs, "that goes beyond journalism; it's about someone whose past is very much linked to what he photographs. It's honest … and full of life."
Rue's maternal grandparents immigrated to California from Mexico and briefly worked in the fields like the men and women in his pictures, yet Rue said agricultural life was largely unknown to him until stints as a reporter and photographer at newspapers in the San Joaquin Valley farming towns of Selma and Madera.
"It was during these experiences that I became familiar with the human condition of migrant farm workers, and I became interested in the larger scope of a community often overlooked," said Rue.
Immigration became an increasingly hot national topic after the photographer came to UC Berkeley, Rue said, so he decided to return to the valley to document the lives of farm workers in Fresno County towns like Wasco, Delano and Avenal. Rue said he plans to concentrate his fellowship work on the town of Huron, on the valley's west side, where the population triples during lettuce season. Some 98 percent of Huron is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census reports, and few residents speak English. Rue considers Huron emblematic of the life of California's farm workers.
"These farm workers, whose aspirations in life are not unlike that of many Americans, migrate from place to place, taking great care and pride in what they do," Rue wrote in his entry for the Lange competition. "Many come from Mexico to the United States under illicit circumstances and find themselves in marginalized communities."
Rue, who says he is a big fan of Lange, said his goal is to help society empathize with the mostly hidden culture of these farm workers, and "humanize the process of going to the grocery store" by showing more facets of the overall agricultural process.
He began his project by interviewing his grandparents, who told him stories he had never heard about their experiences picking cotton and grapes, and about singing in the fields to help pass the time. "It was hot, it was back-breaking, but there was a sense of community," Rue recalled from her stories. "I was surprised that her reaction was almost nostalgic, and I sensed in her almost a yearning for the tight-knit community that many migrant workers have in looking out for each other." Later, Rue often took his grandmother, Petra Sanchez, with him into the fields to serve as his interpreter, filling in the gaps in his own broken Spanish.
Although Rue began his project shooting black-and-white, medium format photographs, he said that he switched to a Canon EOS 1D Mark II digital camera because it better captured the vivid colors he encountered. "Color draws a more modern, contemporary feel," Rue said. "It also conveys a more realistic approach - this is what a person would see if he or she were standing in my shoes."