George Delgado

Dust Bowl images share resemblance to modern day

California’s epic drought continues to be splashed across major media outlets – this time a Tulare County photographer’s work was reportedly picked up by The New Yorker.

The photos were taken by photographer Matt Black near Corcoran and Firebaugh and feature without words the stories of farmers, farmworkers and communities simply trying to survive an epic drought.

Black lives in Exeter, which is in the heart of the Central Valley’s citrus belt.

Black’s photos are included in a seven-minute video by Ed Kashi entitled “California: Paradise Burning.” The video appears on The New Yorker website and features Central Valley sheep farmers, farmworkers and others deeply entrenched in California’s water woes.

The video opens with aerial video footage rendered in high-contrast black and white. It harkens one back to the Depression era photography of Dorothea Lange and her images of dust bowl refugees who escaped Oklahoma for places like Bakersfield, Calif.

What many call Lange’s most famous photo was taken in Nipomo, Calif. in 1936 of a haggard-looking woman with two young children as the “migrant mother” looked into the distance. The image captured the essence of the Great Depression and the plight of Dust Bowl refugees.

Black’s published photos, also printed in high-contrast black and white, remind me of Lange’s images that captured the human struggles of an era permanently stained into the fabric of American history.

Time will tell if Black’s images will harken future generations back to reports of the struggles California farmers had in 2014 when federal water managers shut off surface water deliveries to California farms in order to keep streams flowing for fish.

If nothing else, the images capture a dreary mood that many people in Central California feel today.

Photojournalism speaks volumes

The video that includes Black’s photos opens with sheepherder Martin Etchamendy saying: “The Central Valley is a paradise of the United States of America. From this Valley we are feeding so many people across the world. This is such a rich land; we have good sunshine, but we need water…”

Video and still images paint a grim picture of life and the human condition people suffer under in Central California.

“If you are not in farming, you have a hard time believing how serious the farming situation is,” Etchamendy says in the video.

I agree.

This is why stories and images like that published by The New Yorker are a great way to help people understand the ongoing plight in California.

When people ask why these conditions got so bad in a modern era of technology, water conveyance and reservoirs, we can point to misguided policy and legal decisions by elected officials and regulators for the unnecessary suffering that plagues California in the 21st Century.

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Photojournalism has a remarkable place of informing people, shaping public debate and helping make cultural and political corrections that benefit all humans. While the technology of cameras continues to change, the essence of their use as a “wonderful democratic instrument,” as Lange once said, remains unchanged.

If you’re at a loss for words to describe or understand how California’s drought is now, and will continue to impact people as long as current policies remain unchanged, I urge you: check out “The Dry Land,” a published piece in The New Yorker. Its images convey what words fail to say.

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