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 Farmworker tossing a cataloupe onto a packing vehicle A man tosses a cantaloupe onto a packing vehicle in Firebaugh, Calif. on September 29, 2006. (Jeremy Rue photo)

Journalism student wins Lange award

farmworker  Slide show: 2007 Dorothea Lange Fellow

– Color photos of farm workers in the fields, orchards and labor camps of California's Central Valley have won Jeremy Rue, a student at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, the 2007 Dorothea Lange Fellowship.

  Jeremy Rue
Jeremy Rue (Stephanie Beasley photo)

The $4,000 award is in memory of Dorothea Lange, known for landmark photographic work documenting farm families migrating West in search of work during the Great Depression. Lange worked with her husband, UC Berkeley professor and labor economist Paul Taylor. UC Berkeley's Office of Public Affairs administers the 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 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 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, 25.

After coming to UC Berkeley, immigration became an increasingly hot national topic, said Rue, and he decided to return to the valley to document the lives of farm workers in Fresno County towns like Wasco, Delano and Avenal. Each weekend, he packs up and heads to the valley, and 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, 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, about singing in the fields to help pass the time. Later, Rue often took his grandmother, Petra Sanchez, with him into the fields to serve occasionally as his interpreter, filling in the gaps in his own broken Spanish.

"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."

Although Rue began his project shooting black-and-white, medium format photos, he said that 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."

Information about the Lange Fellowship, previous winners and some of Rue's photos are online at: http://www.berkeley.edu/lange/index.html.