In the photo, a young migrant worker crouches between rows of bell pepper plants outside Arvin, California, wiping the sweat off his face with his sleeve.
Photojournalist David Bacon captured the photo in July of 2021, during the height of the record-breaking heat wave that plagued the western United States and Central Valley. Now, his work is on display at the Kolligian Library at UC Merced.
Titled “Two Years of Heat and Covid in the San Joaquin Valley,” the series of 67 black-and-white photos were taken in the years since the COVID pandemic and document the reality of life in the fields during lockdown and the record-breaking heat wave that plagued the western United States in 2021.
Bacon’s work took place in the Valley’s far flung rural farming communities: Arvin just outside Bakersfield, Poplar in Visalia County and Lenare north of Lemoore, just to name a few. The work highlights the difference between how the media and politicians portrayed “essential workers” and how these workers were actually treated in reality.
“These are communities primarily of farm workers, of people who produce the wealth in this valley… Yet when you look at the photographs, you have to ask yourself, what happened here? Why was it that in communities like Poplar and Lenare, the COVID infection rate was one and a half, two times, two and a half times what it was in Silicon Valley or Oakland?” Bacon said.
“And the answer is really pretty obvious. All you have to do is look at the pictures and what you see is poverty, you see low incomes, you see bad housing, you see people crammed together. The work oftentimes did not allow people to maintain the distance that would’ve kept people from being infected. People had to go to work even if they were sick because they couldn’t afford not to work,” he said.
The COVID infection rate in the San Joaquin Valley, the most productive agricultural area in the world, was far higher than any urban area in California. The men and women who picked the fruit and vegetables that fed the country during the lockdowns were far more likely to be exposed to the virus due to a combination of poverty and bad housing conditions.
“A lot of folk that made it possible for some of us to be in the safety of our own homes, were out putting their lives on the line quite literally, doing the hard work that would keep the whole system running at the foundational levels,” said Gregg Camfield, executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Merced. “One of the functions of art is to capture those kinds of human needs, human dilemmas, and human actions that are too easy to ignore, too easy to forget.”
Bacon has documented the lives of farmworkers for years. His past projects include Living Under the Trees and In the Fields of the North, and his current work was produced as a cooperative effort with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance, California Rural Legal Assistance, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and the United Farm Workers.
The exhibition will run until Feb. 10, and can be found on the second floor of the library.