I was born French in Algeria, grew up in Morocco, and studied photography in Switzerland, before finding work as a photographer of movie stars in Paris. What I wanted to be, however, was a photojournalist and it was the United States that fascinated me. I arrived in New York in 1965 and for more than 3 decades, I travelled trough the country trying to capture the spirit of the times.
In the Sixties, New York was dirty and dangerous. The country was going through profound changes and it looked like everyone was in the streets protesting. In the Seventies, the American dream seemed to be disintegrating. The American people no longer trusted their government.
I covered the rise of the Black power movement and the Ku Klux Klan. During President Carter’s years, I did photo essays with the poor in his home state of Georgia. The American spirit was down. Still, the war in Vietnam had ended and through the hippie movement, the American youth found its voice and optimism.
In the Eighties, Americans were ready for a new beginning. When I look back at the individual photographs I took during this quarter-century period, the images at first seem to depict a ball of confusion… riots, demonstrations, disintegration, collapse and conflict. Taken together, the images show the chaotic, often painful, birth of the country where we live in today: 21st-century America. They do what photographs do best: freeze decisive moments in time for future examination. These photographs form a personal and historical portrait of a country I have always viewed critically but affectionately, and to which I bear immense gratitude.
ARKANSAS PRISON – CUMMINS FARM – 1968
February 15, 1968. A shocking article appears in the New York Times and the Associated Press: several dead bodies alleged to be the remains of inmates have been discovered at the Cummins Prison Farm near Little Rock, Arkansas. I decide to leave immediately.
I will shoot this story in a single day. But what a story!
I got to the state capital city early in the morning and found out through the local press that Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, brother of the New York City Mayor Nelson Rockefeller, was going to give a press conference about the morbid discovery. I listened to the appalling story of this prison, an enormous farm of about 16,000 acres, where prisoners have been made to work the fields, weed and maintain the roads and where a peculiar system was in place: prisoners who were within 6 months of the end of their sentences were given a rifle, munitions and a mule. Their “job” was to watch over other fellow inmates. From one day to the next, these prisoners turned into prison guards called “trusties”. It could have been a great idea, but because of a lack of surveillance by official prison employees, the door was wide open for abuse, black market, drug, alcohol trafficking, denunciations, tortures and even murders.
Two major circumstances led to the unearthing of this story. First, a new prison director, Thomas (Tom) Murton, was hired and implemented new measures that led to life conditions improvement including the ending of corporal punishments, better food and fraud investigation throughout the entire prison hierarchy. Second, a long-term African-American prisoner named Ruben Gains encouraged by this new management found the courage to speak up and relate to the local press the hellish goings-on at Cummins Farm with the trusties.
Armed and ferocious, the trusties, knowing which prisoners family had money, took advantage of their unfettered power to extort money from them, they also demanded sexual favors from the wives and girlfriends of former cellmates. Those who refused to give in to blackmail rebelled or threatened to reveal the abuse were killed in front of the others who had to burry them. When the murder victims failed to report back to the prison that day, it was always said « they had escaped”.
Thanks to Ruben Gaines’ courageous testimonial, Tom Murton ordered a thorough search of specific locations around the farm and around 200 bodies were discovered.
I was granted permission to go to Cummins Farm and Tucker, two adjacent farms each with their respective penitentiary facility. There was also a women facility that I was able to visit as well. It was cotton-picking time at the farm. The prisoners were in the fields, bent down all day in the hot sun pulling behind them long bags measuring 6 feet or more stuffed with cotton balls. The bags were strapped to their shoulders, making movement difficult. It reminded me of the “ball and chain” attached to prisoners ankles in ancient French penal colonies.
I met Tom Murton at his office. He assigned a guard to me and told me I could go anywhere in the prison and take all the photos I wanted.
We went straight to the fields where bodies had been discovered and I photographed some of the graves recently unearthed. I photographed the trusties on their mules, holding loaded rifles and the fields. At the times, segregation was still in effect in this state, black prisoners were under the surveillance of black guards, same applied to the white prisoners. I photographed the dormitories and the line that formed for the evening meal. I photographed the guard tower, where a trusty in the crow’s nest had full view of the courtyard, even from the toilet. I never saw this again in any other prison.
I was the only photographer in the compound. As I was going through the offices saying goodbye, a detainee saw me and suddenly attacked the guard who was accompanying me. A fight ensued. He was quickly and violently overtaken by prison guards. I snapped off several photos of the incident. One of the guards became furious and demanded that I give him my film. I refused. He then ran to the office of Tom Murton and I ran to my car. I wanted to get through the gate before the entrance guard would be given orders to stop me.
It may seem odd that I would be allowed to take pictures of working prisoners in the fields but not of a rebelling inmate. Within the circumstances of a scandal you were allowed to take as many pictures as you wanted, but in case of an unexpected incident like this recalcitrant convict, you were forbidden to photograph the scene and your films could be seized.
Ten minutes later I was on the highway racing to Little Rock. From a distance, I heard the unmistakable dreaded sound of the siren of a police car speeding toward me from the rear. I floored the rental car and for several minutes I was in a chase scene from a movie. Suddenly in front of me a long train was hurtling across the road. I slammed on the brakes. I got out of the car and took my last film out of its case. The train quickly cleared past but the cop car was now almost upon me. I jumped back in the car and floored it once again. Crossing the tracks, I heard a loud thump but didn’t pay much attention to it. Looking into my rear view mirror, I was surprised to see that the police car had stopped on the train tracks and the officer was getting out of his car…
Half an hour later I was on a plane leaving the airport. I counted my films. Ten rolls. I methodically sorted through my equipment… Only two Leicas? How could that be? I had a horrifying moment when I realized I had left the third one on the top of my car at the train crossing. The thump I heard must have been my Leica bouncing from the roof to the trunk to the ground and the cop stopped to get out and picked it up. This Leica had my best lens: a 21mm super Angulon with a visor, a tragic loss for young photographer. In that instant I thought I had lost everything…
However, I still had all my films and the following week, on February 24, Paris Match published 10 pictures of my Cummins Prison story on six pages, including a double spread.
Doing this story changed my life. Hubert Henrotte, a friend whom I had met at the photo school of Vevey (Switzerland), asked me to join the new photo agency; GAMMA, and I became their first foreign correspondent on January 1, 1969.
Tom Murton wrote a book in 1969 called Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal. The rights were bought by 20th Century Fox leading to a very successful film, « BRUBAKER » starring Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman.
My photos were consulted for the film costumes and set design.
Governor Winthrop Rockfeller did not get re-elected.
Life conditions at Cummins Farm improved significantly.
THE « SAVAGE SKULLS » – 1972
During the summer of 1972 the name of this gang made headlines in New York newspapers more than once as they violently settled scores with drug dealers.
Gang members were easy to spot on Fox Street, one of the main streets of the Bronx, but one still had to approach them. For a first encounter I didn’t want to be alone, so I went with a cameraman friend. From the supposed safety of our car, we initiated contact with several of them with surprising ease. They quickly had numerous questions for us: they wanted to know who we were, where we came from, what we wanted, where the images would be printed and if we worked in black and white or color. When we assured them we weren’t reporters from the American press, they invited us to follow them; we did, and they introduced us to about 20 other gang members. The majority of them were between 13 and 20 years old, of Puerto Rican origin and Spanish was fast between them. Right off the bat, they told us they didn’t want to be questioned about their lives or the gang, but said we could film and photograph them.
I returned alone the next day with just a camera and they welcomed me as if I was an old friend. They showed me where to park my car securely and I followed them into their world. They were the « Enfants Terribles » of their neighborhood. They strolled from block to block; stopped to chat with the police. From time to time they would meet a member of another gang and I saw them pass of a pistol in broad daylight without a care. They liked to line up side to side the entire width of the sidewalk. Their uniform was a jean jacket, sometimes of leather, upon which was sewn “Savage Skulls” in large letters.
Their graffiti was everywhere. “Savage Skulls” was written on doors, walls, garbage cans, telephone booths. They were very affectionate with each other. The couples made out in public and held hands. Together they formed a large and very close family. They spent a lot of time with their relatives and played with each other’s babies. Their mothers sat on their stoops joking and teasing them. They fought playfully with each other and used sticks as pretend guns and practiced fighting with knives.
I learned that their leader had just been released from the hospital after being wounded by a bullet in the abdomen. His number two hadn’t been so lucky and was dead. I took photos without asking a single question about the shooting and no gang member violated their code of silence.
In the neighborhood were many empty public spaces, including basketball courts surrounded by wire fences where they would climb and chase one another like in a dance. I photographed them and thought of the film « West Side Story ».
They took me to their club located in the dark basement of a building. Two or three lamps with colored light bulbs lit the wall upon which were scattered posters of movies, sports figures, girls and bands. The music was very loud but they didn’t dance. This was a place where they could talk without end about their projects, their outings and their encounters. They drank beer after beer and showed off their “bling”: knives, hand cuffs, brass knuckles etc…When I took my leave, they gave me hugs and told me to “come back whenever you want” and I felt that they meant it sincerely.
The Bronx was densely populated with several other gangs at the time: the Dirty Dozen; the Seven Immortals; the Savage Nomads, to name a few. The Savage Skulls were the only ones I wanted to meet. Rival gangs had clearly delineated zones with rules of engagement. It was obvious to me that anything that occurred outside their universe held little interest to them. Though living in an outer borough of the biggest city in the world, they made no effort to integrate into a society that ignored and rejected them. They didn’t think of themselves as citizens; they respected their own laws and made others respect them as well. They had a leader they elected who they obeyed. Their goal was to defend themselves against the police. They declared war against the drug traffickers, who were forbidden from entering their zone. Some gangs had been known to send interlopers plummeting to their deaths from rooftops for the police to find on the sidewalk.
I felt admiration for these struggling, disadvantaged youths, who, by banding together, found a way to empower themselves and support each other despite the misery that engulfed them.
TRANSVESTITES – 1966
In 1966, a year after my arrival to the Unites States, I was the assistant to a photographer who had a studio on west 67th street near Central Park. I lived in a tiny studio on the roof of a building on west 72nd street. The west side was becoming familiar to me.
At the time, the neighborhood was filled with dilapidated buildings where scores of drug users, prostitutes, and very poor people lived. Much of Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 film “Panic in Needle Park” was filmed near Broadway and 72nd street. It’s hard to imagine this today passing by the modern studio of ABC TV, the magnificent campus of Julliard, Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera of New York, but 30 years ago this area was a bad neighborhood. Here is where I did my first photo essay without even meaning to.
One summer day, I was walking in front of 31 west 65th street. I always had a Leica camera on my shoulder and I was careful not to use too much film as I was living on a sparse budget. I was accosted in a friendly way by two very effeminate young boys who asked if I would please take their picture. We chatted on the stoop of their little tenement building, where they were enjoying the sun. They gathered from my accent that I was a foreigner which seemed to make them feel at ease. I offered to come back the next day and give them the prints as presents. We continued to chat and they shared with me that they dressed up as women and worked the street on the west side of Broadway from 63rd to 67th street. I asked if they lived alone and they told me that their four-story apartment building was entirely inhabited by homosexuals and that they were all friends. I asked if I could also photograph their friends and they said « Yes, come back tomorrow and we’ll introduce you. »
I went home, developed the film and made a dozen prints of this young couple tenderly embracing while gazing at each other and smiling. The photos were surprisingly simple and touching, with nothing vulgar or shocking about them.
Let me share briefly that I spent my youth in Casablanca, Morocco. My mother’s second husband was a gynecologist. This man raised me and it is thanks to him that I have the happiest memories of my childhood, my education, as well as a sense of freedom and self expression that I still possess. My memories of him are filled with love and admiration. In the 50’s and 60’s, this man became a world renowned surgeon, famous for his transsexual surgical techniques. He was a pioneer in the physiological transformation from man to woman. I twice photographed the extraordinary and audacious surgical procedures he practiced. In his clinic I met homosexual men who would become women, some of them very famous, who spoke of their profound suffering as little boys who wanted to grow up to be women.
It was, therefore, very easy and without any voyeurism that I returned to see these young men and spend the day in their building going from apartment to apartment, following their daily routines. A majority of their day was spent on perfecting their appearance as women. They spent hours making their own dresses to fit the fashion of the day and hours trying on wigs and putting on makeup. Some of them had a long way to go to look like women. They compensated by wearing more outrageous clothes and the largest wigs. All had falsies in their bras that they would show off with glee. They wore corsets and stockings even in summer. Most touching was when they came together to play with dolls and pretended to be mothers taking care of their babies. In the afternoon, I suggested we go to the roof to have a fashion shoot. They loved that idea and took an additional two hours to dress, groom and make themselves up.
They were very curious about me, why I came to New York and what I would do with their photos. Suddenly, a man barged into our fashion shoot and ordered me to leave the building immediately. He told the men to go back into their apartments then he forced me down the stairs with a knife at my throat and said “Never come back here and consider yourself lucky that you get to leave with your camera!”
Fearing that the young men would get in trouble, I never showed the photos to any agency or any magazine and I took them out of my archives for the first time when considering this book.
ROCK FESTIVAL AT WATKINS GLEN – 1973
Watkins Glen, New York, about 4 hours north of Manhattan by car, has long been known as a Mecca for North American road racing. But one Saturday, July 28th, 1973, the Summer Jam held at the Watkins Glen raceway drew the largest rock festival audience in American history. I packed food, beverages and a sleeping bag and wisely got there on the Thursday before the festival, allowing me to park my car right behind the stage. By noon on Friday, the local authorities were already overwhelmed. By Friday night, it was total chaos. Narrow country roads forced fans to abandon their cars in the fields and walk for hours; even television crews had to leave their vans 3 or 4 km away; tens of thousand of kids arrived on foot through the countryside; a few had been there for over a week. The organizers of the festival had anticipated 150,000 spectators and were selling tickets for $10 a piece. Their expectations were wrong. Nothing could stop the deluge of people continuing to arrive all through the night. The hippies were coming.
On Saturday, I took turns with several other journalists flying over the crowd in a surveillance helicopter. Tens of hectares had become a gigantic parking lot. The vast majority of the spectators, gathered in enormous fields, couldn’t even see the stage where dozens of bands would play, one after the other, for 24 hours. The crews attempted to add speakers but unless you were relatively close, the sound quality was awful.
A heavy storm on Saturday afternoon transformed the fields into pools of mud. You could either try to find your car and leave, join the dance pit that was forming under the rain or sit on the ground in the mud. The young fans that stayed were rewarded with an evening of surprisingly nice weather and smaller crowds. Many could finally see the stage and hear the music at last.
The enthusiasm and joy was palpable. The “Hippies” embraced each other, smoked grass, sniffed cocaine and made love. Many went nude like at most summer rock festivals. The heat and lack of comfort didn’t seem to bother them in the least, though finding a place to relieve oneself was quite an adventure.
The official tally of the crowd was 600,000, making it much bigger than Woodstock, but others estimate there were one million people there when the rain hit that Saturday afternoon. Possibly one out of 3 East Coast adolescents was present at Watkins Glen at some point over the course of that weekend.
The ambiance in the country was one of optimism. The Vietnam war was going to end; peace treaties had been signed in January of 1972. For American youth, it seemed if the 60’s were about protest, the 70’s were about fun.
The hippie generation is gone now but has impacted our way of life in profound ways. Hippies rejected middle class values, opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war, championed sexual liberation and favored peace, love and personal freedom. « We opened the door and everybody went through it and everything changed after that » says Joe McDonald, the creator of « Country Joe and The Fish ».
It did indeed.
BOXING: ALI VS FRAZIER – 1971
This was the match everyone wanted. It was called the “Fight of the Century” and took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 8th, 1971. Both fighters were undefeated. Frazier had the belt. Ali, after more than 3 years of government-imposed exile, wanted the belt that had been stripped from him when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War.
The title of “Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World” was at stake. The record purse of $5 million would be evenly split between them. The fight would go the full 15 rounds, with Frazier winning the title by unanimous decision. Ali refused to publically admit defeat, calling it a “white man’s decision.”
Ali would win the rematch with Frazier on January 28th, 1974. I covered both fights.
This particular March 8th 1971, was a frustrating one because, with only my foreign press accreditation, I was refused access to the arena and was only allowed to photograph the VIP arriving. After the match, I would be allowed to receive some pool photos of the fight from the press room.
When it comes to international events taking place in the United States, the way accreditations for the press are distributed has always been unjust. The big American agencies and television stations were given priority, then the major magazines, and then the dailies, which received their images mostly from the big American agencies AP and UPI. In 1971, my agency, GAMMA, supplied all the major magazines the whole world over and we should have been given full access to cover this historic match.
I had, as always, arrived early and I tried to make the most of photographing the celebrities arriving with their bodyguards. There were hundreds of celebrities and VIPs, all having paid thousands of dollars for their spot in the stadium, and all of them competing with one another for the title of “most outrageous outfit”. There was a luxury of crushed velvet, hairstyles, platform shoes with 3-inch heels and fedora hats and unrecognizable people in extraordinary outfits. It was hard to tell what you were intended to notice: the get ups, or the identities of those wearing them. The dandy men were stunning, with over-the-top originality. Furs were everywhere and they were dashing: sables, minks, beavers, chinchillas, even wolf! This was the cutting edge of fashion as extravaganza.
For the second match in 1974, I got lucky and was able to get inside and photograph the match and again, I got there early and photographed also the crowd who arrived as phenomenally dressed as they did for the first match. The events were perhaps the two most important public fashion shows for the dandies of the day and my photos represent the crowd of the 2 events. These photos were a large success in the European press.
Important twist: 45 years later, my friend Philip Ambrosino came to see the photos of those matches and told me about Frank Lucas, the most important importer of heroin from the golden triangle in Southeast Asia. Wearing a chinchilla coat with matching hat that must have cost $200,000 at the time, Frank Lucas, accompanied by his wife dressed in white mink came to see the 1971 fight. It was because of that coat that Richie Roberts, head of the Narcotics Task Force, became interested in Frank Lucas and eventually discovered that he was the king of heroin sold in Harlem. The film “American Gangster”, directed by Ridley Scott, tells the tale of Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, with Russell Crowe as the cop who arrests him.
It is only while editing my photos for this book that I discovered these unpublished photographs including the one of Frank Lucas.
When I arrived at Rajneesh Puram, near the village of Antilope in Oregon, a police car was blocking the road. A woman security officer got out and greeted me, kept my passport and asked me to pay $150 in advance for 3 nights. Waiting for me in town was Prem Isabelle, the French woman responsible for press relations. A fervent disciple of Bhagwan, the much loved Guru of this sect, Prem was very pleased to live in Rancho (what the disciples had nicknamed the town of Rajneesh Puram). She accompanied me during my entire stay. Rancho is situated in a little valley; it has four streets and a tour takes less than five minutes. However, there were constructions sites all around us. The sound of hammers and electric saws seemed to never cease. Rajneesh Puram was a like a beehive, complete with typical urban infrastructure such as fire department, police, post office and airport where I saw two Douglas DC3 transport airliners. I was impressed.
I learned that the community owned 64,000 acres of land, of which 3000 was farmland that provided them with wheat, barley and other cereals. A herd of 60 cows and dozens of goats fulfilled their dairy needs. The “Sannyasins” (disciples) were ovo-lacto vegetarian. The chicken coop was very well attended to and the 3000 chicken were free range and laid about 1500 eggs a day. There were many other animals, including riding horses and some workhorses. There were greenhouses full of vegetables.
Prem told me with pride that they were self-sustaining, and that they had enough grain to make flour. I was impressed by their private airport, where there were two Douglas DC3 transport airliners. The town itself had several imposing structures: a meditation center, an administrative building, a garage where vehicles of all kinds are maintained and repaired, and a large hospital. There were also forges, carpentry shops, little workshops where furniture and clothes were made, as well as all the expected commercial activity of a small town: grocery stores, bakeries, dry cleaners, barbers, restaurants, and clothing stores with a large selection of styles but narrow selection of earth colors. Surprisingly, there were jewelry stores, a disco and even a casino.
The most important part of the day would start soon, and it did. All of the inhabitants of the small town of around 3500 lined up on the left side of the streets and put their hands in the prayer position in front of their faces. A bright, shiny Rolls Royce then slowly rolled through the streets and brushed closely past each one of them. Bhagwan, the supreme leader, was at the wheel, smiling. He exchanged a few words and looks with his followers. For them, this encounter was absolute bliss. After his drive-by, the Sannyasins meditated in silence for a long while. I had noticed that Bhagwan wasn’t alone in the Rolls. Prem told me that his nurse, Ma Vivek, is always by his side to tend to him because he suffers from severe allergies.
She went on to tell me that Bhagwan, which means “blessed man” in Hindi, was born in 1931 in India, and he is the uncontested spiritual leader of their sect. Upon starting his religion, he made a wish; “What happened to him, should happen to others.” His philosophy is that spirituality and materialism can co-exist and followers can realize their dreams by working and worshiping together. For them, capitalism is not the enemy; it is a means by which to achieve harmony with nature and the world we live in. He has written 350 books translated into 17 languages and created a unique global community.
The Sannyasins live apart from the world. They read only their own newspaper, “Rajneesh Time”, which covers town activities, local news, and theology in general. Their clothing is fuchsia, red, orange, pink, peach, violet or yellow; the colors of life in the spectrum of the sun. Women are free to wear whatever jewelry they want but it must include the Mala, medallion with Bhagwan portrait. Most of the followers are well-to-do and they are free to drive their luxurious cars, and all is allowed as long as you conform to the rules of Bhagwan and meditate several times a day, at least an hour in the morning and in the evening. There are three ways to meditate: passively, which means meditating while walking or working; classic meditation, which demands immobility in a seated or standing pose; and, finally, active meditation, which is done while dancing to music or lying in a supine pose, with a bandage over the eyes.
At the time, there were 300,000 disciples all over the world, all of who contributed to the construction of Rancho. Most of the American disciples were quite wealthy for one reason or another and they showered the Bhagwan with gifts. He apparently had a weakness for Rolls Royce’s and had more than 25 of them, all in different colors and he never drove the same one twice in a row. The Sannyasins were not just wealthy, most were also well-educated with college degrees. There were many architects, lawyers, engineers, accredited professors and doctors among them. They believed in Bhagwan and his teachings and they followed his doctrine seeking to live a happy life in harmony with the environment. Everywhere I went I was met with a smile and told to come back soon.
On Sunday evening, the “Darshan” ceremony took place. In a large room, the disciples gathered, turned to face one of the ministers of the sect, and dropped to their knees. He was a man with grey hair and beard whose name was Swami Anand Teertha. Hand picked by Bhagwan, he was one of several “Acharya”, or grand priests with the power to initiate newcomers. When presiding over a conversion, the Acharya would place a finger at the “third eye” on his forehead, offer the Mala and present an initiate certificate to a new member with a new name given exclusively by Bhagwan. Some believers went so far as to change their names legally. The convert promised to wear the medallion, to wear the colors, to respond to his or her new name, and to follow the teachings of Bhagwan.
During the Darshan ceremony, 8 of Swami Teertha’s “Vestals” (mediums), all with long hair and long flowing gowns, sat around him in a semi-circle. Sannyasins with questions would come forward to sit in the center of the semi-circle and share their fears and confusions. Teertha proceeded to perform an “unblocking”. He used reassuring and psychoanalytical language and chose appropriate music. He then led the group into a collective meditation about the problem at hand. In a few minutes, all present went into a trance. Some shivered, some screamed, some burst into laughter and some became ecstatic. The mediums threw their heads back and spoke in tongues, or used words only they could understand. Then they all got on their backs and began to meditate. This collective meditation was intensely focused, and seemed interminable. Long minutes passed in total silence. No one moved. All eyes were closed.
Afterwards, I was treated to an unexpected round of chanting; about a hundred people singing “Happy Birthday, dear Jean-Pierre!” The security center that had my passport must have read my birth date, told Prem and with her complicity, the Sannyasins had prepared this surprise for me. The homemade cake was an insight into the generosity of spirit of this community. I never had a birthday cake of that size.
It is said that to live happily, live privately. What was true is that they were all smiles and seemed happy.
I left Rajneesh Puram on January 30th, 1984 and drove to Portland. In the car, I heard on the radio that the American situation is Lebanon was abysmal, with heavy American Marine casualties and that the Beirut airport had been bombed and shut down. It was my time to meditate on the Rajneesh. For a Sannyasin, there are few reasons to smile outside of Rajneesh Puram. I understand their dream to want to live together in a better world.
AMERICAN FARMERS IN THE 80s.
It is difficult for me to describe in a few words the agony of American agricultural way of life that I so often photographed but I will try to express what has always struck me when I was with farmers.
After decades of rapid growth fueled by credit expansion and indefatigable optimism, the American agricultural industry is suffering the worst crisis since the Great Depression. For the family farmer, rapid growth translated into property acquisition; during the Sixties and Seventies, easy credit meant low interest rates, high inflation, increasing farm productivity and burgeoning sales of grain on the international market. Although much of America’s farmland was already owned and operated by the industrial giants of the agribusiness, family farmers were able to compete because of the basic structure of rural financial institutions, which functioned as de facto cooperatives allowing the producer to speculate on prices, harvests, trade and currency markets and fixed capital investments. Thanks to those structures, family farming was solidly anchored to the economic welfare of the nation and the family farm was the sentimental bedrock of America’s most successful business.
This was not going to last. In 1979 reacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter administration suspended all grain sales to the U.S.S.R. Ironically, the strategy backfired and the farm economy began a long decline. A market crisis ensued. Technologically guaranteed harvests no longer had an automatic market. A crisis of overproduction devastated the farm economy, and although other factors eventually contributed .to the largest postwar recession in 1980, the farmer would continue to seize on the grain embargo as the root of his Problems. That helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 and again in 1984.
The first Reagan administration thanked the rural constituency by raising interest rates and issuing strict controls on money. In reaction, rural credit institutions began foreclosure actions. Families who had farmed the same land for generations were foreclosed, forced to leave their heritage to bank managers. Equipment was sold at auction. Farmhouses throughout the middle-west were abandoned to the elements. Some of the farmers who remained struggled to feed their families by working part-time jobs off the farm. By 1982, the tragedy snowballed to such proportions that small farmers were being thrown out of business at the rate of five thousand per week! And to make things worst, southern Iowa experienced a ravaging drought in 1983.
In response to the mounting chorus of demands by farm-state politicians, Washington tried a solution known as the P.I.K. program (Payment-in-Kind). The deal between Washington and the farmers represented an attempt to cut production drastically. For every acre of land left uncultivated by the farmer, the government agreed to reimburse him with an equivalent value of grain at the market price. In other words, the unsalable grain was being given back to the producer to keep him from producing even more. Nevertheless, grain prices continued to drop. Instead of a real solution, P.I.K. saddled the farmer with old debts and acted as a disincentive to produce new debts.
It failed for two reasons. First, there was no attempt by Washington to artificially raise grain prices as is routinely practiced in other agricultural economies; secondly, in a cash economy, the farmer cannot barter grain for essential services. In a strategy of shifting reserves, only those who can afford to wait for the right price – i.e. agribusiness – make a profit. Family farmers fall deeper in debt and at some point can no longer afford the seeds, fertilizer and gasoline necessary for a crop.
By the beginning of 1984, farmers across the country were organizing active resistance to government policies and bank liquidations. Too many personal tragedies of suicide and ruined dreams accumulated in the mass consciousness. Determined farmers and fellow supporters stood together in opposition to auctions and foreclosure sales. They used disruption to stop the transactions cold. Sometimes there was confrontation with the police; more often, the sale was delayed or transacted over the telephone.
In the intervening years, farm unions regained a level of activity unseen since the dust bowl of the’ Thirties. American agriculture was catapulted to national fame and forums organized by clerics and Sixties radicals offered farmers a community-oriented grass roots.
Mass rallies occurred in Missouri and Iowa as a prelude to a march on Washington where farmers, rural entrepreneurs and their dependents joined with outraged politicians to demand an immediate congressional apportionment to infuse billions of dollars into the ailing agricultural economy. The rallies were successful to the extent that they attracted national media attention for the first time. Farm families lobbied for the existence of a way of life. Symbolism prevailed as partisans paraded white crosses representing the death of the farm. For the first time, a singularly individualistic sector of Americans banded together collectively in the spirit of national protest.
Into 1985, the crisis had not subsided. Reagan and his Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, practiced a strategy of avoiding the problem. Prices continued to sag. Perhaps the greatest insult to the venerable American farm saw the Department of Agriculture reinterpret regulations so impoverished farmers might collect food stamps!
As quickly as Congress acted to pass the 1985 farm bill, the President relegated it to the Oval office shredder. The farmer was defeated in unity as he had already lost when he stood alone.
From all the important events I photographed in my career as a photojournalist, none moved me more that the life of the American farmers. I will always cherish them in my heart as they deeply touched me and I strongly admire those courageous folks. Their life is rich and complex, filled with countless hours of work, starting before sunrise and going to rest hours after sunset.
They do not take vacations, nor weekends off, and work 100-hours weeks. They are constantly facing a deadline to start or finish a task, regardless of the weather threatening their land, and they live with the prospect of losing their entire crop to drought or flooding till harvest day.
I photographed the dramatic moments of farms foreclosures and repossessions. The auctioning-off of ceased equipment was a sad and painful sight for all, including neighbors and friends bidding for bargains and knowing they may be next to face the same fate. Once, a farmer told me: “I lost my farm, I am a finished man, I don’t know of any other way to live…” That is not quite true.
The farmers’ work is such that they have to perform a variety of jobs other than farming. They are carpenters, electricians, mechanics, engineers, blacksmiths, and can drive all sorts of trucks, tractors and combines. In the north, winters are long and cold. The women gather in the evening to make clothes and the men work at repairing their vehicles, rebuilding motors, taking care of paperwork and performing all kind of maintenance work on the farm.
I do not know of another social group whose members look as much after each other with such generosity. Farmers truly live a life of hard labor, but go through it with passion without imagining another way of living.