"The children's father works in the orchards," said Rick Nahmias, creator, writer and photographer of "The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers," a recently opened exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance and of the book of the same name.
"Their mother works in the packing houses. Midday they pack a lunch and the kids bring their pet chicken, and they play in the canal.... Against all odds, these people are holding their family together. There's something beautiful about that," Nahmias said."At the same time, there's something horrifying because it's not Santa Monica Beach or the YMCA. It's an agricultural canal, and the water is tainted with pesticides."
Nahmias, who is Jewish and in his early 40s, lives in the San Fernando Valley. A photographer/writer/filmmaker who has worked for corporate and organizational clients, his recent efforts have focused on what he feels "really matters": documenting the lives and struggles of marginalized people and communities. His other photo-documentary projects include "Golden States of Grace," a collection of images and oral histories depicting off-the-beaten-path religious groups in moments of sacrament and prayer. Another undertaking, "Last Days of the Four Seasons," now in post-production, chronicles the lives of Holocaust survivors residing in a Catskill bungalow colony that is in the process of being shut down for good.
Nahmias said that the idea for "The Migrant Project" took root in 2002, when he was working for Arianna Huffington as a writer and researcher.
"On a break from my political writing, I spent a week at a culinary institute in Napa," Nahmias said. "While there, I realized that no one talks about how this amazing bounty of food gets to our kitchens and tables. And I thought: 'Let me take a stab at this.' I felt passionate enough about this issue to leave a paying job in order to try to do something that was both creative and political.
"Another thing was that I had spent time [researching] the life of Edward R. Murrow, especially 'Harvests of Shame,' his groundbreaking 1960 documentary on migrant farm workers. I had not seen anything done currently that addressed that."
In order to gather material for "The Migrant Project," Nahmias crisscrossed California's agricultural areas, from Calexico to Sacramento, listening to stories and taking photos. His aim was to put a human face on what he calls an "invisible and consistently neglected population." Each of the exhibition's 40 black-and-white photos -- which are accompanied by Nahmias' written commentary -- offers a glimpse into the "collective saga about the very human cost of putting food on America's table."
For example, there's Maria. She looks, unsmilingly, straight at the camera, her face framed by leaves. On the day Nahmias was scheduled to shoot Maria's portrait, she was evicted from the trailer park where she lived with her three children. Her Latina landlady had "snooped around" and discovered Maria is HIV-positive.
"Here was an incident of bad behavior by someone in the community to someone beneath her," Nahmias said. "Do I glaze over that? Or do I document it? I felt I had to bring that truth out and let people make of it what they will. It was amazing to me that Maria could put aside her own issues, her eviction, her fear and pain, her anger and sadness, and talk very candidly with me about her journey, what she's doing now, how she's surviving."
Nahmias pointed out another photo: A laborer is in the shade of a grapevine, cutting down a bunch of grapes. He's on one knee, his back ramrod straight, a hedge-clipper in his right hand, his left hand swathed with a protective cloth. A shaft of sunlight slants down on the grapes and makes them look like precious jewels. The light, the farm worker's pose, his concentration -- it looks like a religious moment in a classical painting.
"It had to be about 110 degrees when this photo was taken," Nahmias said. "This gentleman was kneeling in this grape arbor all morning. I'd heard from a number of farm workers that they see their labor as a spiritual duty -- helping to bring God's bounty to the earth. Religion is one of the few shreds of dignity that farm workers have, something they can hold onto while doing enormously hard work and suffering degradation."
Nahmias said more than a million people in California are involved in migrant farm labor, and the big growers have little or no human connection with them.
"A middleman-agent brings the growers undocumented laborers who are willing to work for three or four dollars per hour," Nahmias said. "If a worker is owed [money], what's he going to do? He doesn't speak English; he can't go to court because he works six days a week, and there are 8,000 complaints piled up ahead of his."
While preparing this exhibition, Nahmias said he came to believe "that no other group of people in this country works as hard and is paid so little for that work. And no group plays such a vital role in preserving the lifestyle that we're fortunate to have.
"I hope that this exhibit lays a few seeds of compassion ... so that when people look at 'the immigration issue,' they'll realize it's a human issue.... We eat three meals a day, and we're incredibly lucky to do that.... I do educational programs, I talk with the kids, I tell them, 'Look, you're going for your Happy Meal, this is where that tomato comes from'.... [So] by virtue of the lives we lead, as Americans and as human beings, we owe it to the migrant workers to look in their eyes and understand how we're reflected in their eyes. We owe it to them to understand what responsibility we have."
The exhibition continues through May 25 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. "The Migrant Project" book is available at the Museum of Tolerance. Half the proceeds from book sales will go to organizations helping migrant farm laborers. For more information, call (310) 553-8403.
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