FIELD OF BROKEN DREAMS
The Migrant Project’s enduring message of compassion and community
By Taryn Harrington 09/26/2013
Rick Nahmias started The Migrant Project 10 years ago in the agricultural fields of California. Camera in hand, his sole purpose was to document the “human cost of feeding America.” It’s a phrase that would come to determine the next decade of his life.
As a writer and photographer, and former researcher for Arianna Huffington, Nahmias had a creative instinct to explore his passion for art and activism. Before the project, he attended culinary school in Napa Valley with the intention of getting into the restaurant business. It wasn’t long before he put his cooking ambitions to the wayside — using photography as his medium and food as his subject, he found every book and study on migrant farm workers.
Fifty counties and 4,000 miles later, Nahmias managed to unfold the hardships of California’s largest work force. Pictures of men and women working various crops show specific issues — health, housing and education — affecting their communities. The book The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2008. Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers of America, wrote the foreword. “The truth of the matter,” Nahmias said in a TEDx talk at USC in 2011, “is, we can’t, as middle-class Americans, often relate to what farm workers are dealing with.”
“The cruelest irony in all the work that I did
was the fact that the people who feed the best-fed nation
on the planet cannot often afford to feed themselves.”
— Rick Nahmias, photographer and author
Nahmias’ goal was to bring awareness to the social issues of underrepresented communities. A graduate of New York University with a double major in film and religious studies, Nahmias has always been drawn to the marginalized. His other subjects include disinherited religious communities and senior Holocaust survivors.
The Migrant Project exhibit traveled across the nation to various campuses and art spaces, and is currently on display at the Ventura County Museum of Agriculture in Santa Paula through late October. Educational speakers and artists, including Susan Zamudio-Gurrola and Donna Granata, will contribute to the exhibit, and Nahmias will make an additional appearance next month.
“What these children have to endure is not typical in an American household,” said Zamundio-Gurrola, an expert in 20th century history of Ventura County farm worker housing, “It’s high time that someone did an exhibit to expose this, especially in Ventura County, which has such a large agricultural industry.”
This is the last time The Migrant Project exhibit will be shown before retiring.
Nahmias’ photos are not overtly political or artsy. He intentionally wanted it to be social documentation. The exhibit’s 40 black and white photographs, taken with his Nikon FE camera, often portray subjects with humility and dignity.
In one of his most memorable photos, an image of a man in a plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up and a hat covering his hair, stands next to a tower of strawberry flats. The caption informs that workers can fill between 30 and 120 flats a day, at around $1.15 per flat. With his shoulders upright and hands slightly open, he stands with immediacy.
Farm workers make up almost half the work force in California. In Ventura County alone, agriculture accounted for $1.8 billion dollars in revenue in 2011, employing more than 23,000 men and women in the fields, a third of whom are migrant workers, according to a study by The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most workers make less than $18,000 a year.
“The cruelest irony in all the work that I did,” Nahmias later said, “was the fact that the people who feed the best-fed nation on the planet cannot often afford to feed themselves.”
In 2009, Nahmias started a program called Food Forward, a grass-roots nonprofit organization that gleans local produce, say from a neighbor’s orange tree, that would normally go to waste. It donates 100 percent to local food pantries across California. To date, the organization has contributed more than 1,683,317 pounds of produce. Volunteers, cutely referred to as “fruitanthropists,” get to pick, distribute and help donate the food to feed the poor.
Nahmia ended his TEDx talk by saying, “Compassion merged with action equals change.” It’s a wise lesson for us all.
The Migrant Project through Oct. 20 at the Agriculture Museum, 926 Railroad Ave., Santa Paula, 525-3100.