Stephanie Beasley photo
Slide show of Jeremy Rue's photos
Color photos of farm workers in the fields, orchards, and labor camps of California’s Central Valley are the winning work of Jeremy Rue, a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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 photos, “that goes beyond journalism; it’s about someone whose past is very much linked to what he photographs. It’s honest and its colors, 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 photos, yet Rue said agricultural life was largely unknown to him until he worked 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,” he said.
After Rue came to UC Berkeley, immigration became an increasingly hot national topic, and he decided to return to the valley to document the lives of farm workers in Fresno County towns like Wasco, Delano, and Avenal.
Rue plans to concentrate his fellowship work on the town of Huron, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, 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 life in the town to be emblematic of the experiences of California’s farm workers.
“These farm workers, whose aspirations in life are not unlike those 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, a big fan of Lange, said his goal is to help society empathize with the mostly hidden culture of these farm workers and to “humanize the process of going to the grocery store” by giving those who see his photos a more complete view of the agricultural system.
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 the recollections of his grandmother, Petra Sanchez. “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 with him into the fields to act as his interpreter, filling the gaps in his own broken Spanish.
Although Rue began his project shooting black-and-white, medium-format photos, he said he switched to a Canon EOS 1D Mark II digital camera because it better captures 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.”