By Meredith Blasingame
Activist, journalist and documentary photographer, David Bacon, has dedicated his life to social activism. Mild-mannered and matter-of-fact with a quiet sense of humor, Bacon has a way of putting people at ease–a skill that has no doubt served him well throughout many years of labor organizing and taking photographs to reveal and resolve inequities.
Bacon was born in New York City but grew up in Oakland, where his father, a printer and the head of the Book and Magazine Guild union, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Bacon’s father gave him a first-hand look at what it takes to organize a group of people behind a common cause.
“Organizing and printers ink both run in the blood,” he says, referring to the fact that he, like his father, worked as a printer for a time. Bacon worked to organize a union during his first job as a factory worker, launching a career that spanned two decades, both as a factory worker and union organizer. He has worked with the United Farm Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers, and other labor organizations.
Bacon’s time as a union organizer evolved into documentary photography and journalism in the mid-1980s. Today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights. He has written for publications such as The Nation and In These Times and he is the author of several books.
In the prologue to his most recent book In the Fields of the North/En Los Campos del Norte (2017), Bacon states, “For three decades I’ve used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the ‘reality check;’ the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration and displacement.”
“The Reality Check” is also the name of Bacon’s blog, where Bacon documents topics ranging from the working conditions of Iraqi oil refineries to California farm workers to hotel and school workers on the job.
I sat down with the documentary photographer to learn more about his career path, his goals and motivations, lessons from the field, and next steps in his lifelong mission to sow the seeds of change.
Photos with permission by David Bacon/Special to the Guardsman
Hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 2, go on strike against Marriott Hotels in San Francisco, protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel. Workers picket the Marriott Union Square Hotel on Oct. 4, 2018.
Hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 2, go on strike against Marriott Hotels in San Francisco, protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel. Workers picket the Marriott Union Square Hotel on Oct. 4, 2018.
After a week on strike against Marriott Hotels, hotel workers, members of Unite Here Local 2, are arrested for sitting down and blocking Fourth Street in San Francisco in an act of civil disobedience. The sit-in took place in front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, the flagship Marriott hotel in the city. Workers were protesting low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel.
After 61 days on their picket lines, San Francisco workers celebrate the end of the strike and the agreement on a new union contract on Dec. 3 2018. Workers protested low wages that force many workers to work an additional job besides their job at the hotel.
MB: How did you get into photography?
DB: I was into it as a teenager, but my camera got stolen and life moved on. I didn’t come back to it until later.
I was a union organizer for a number of years. In the mid-1980s, I picked up a camera again to take pictures of the strikes that we would organize. That beginning was utilitarian in a way – to publicize strikes, give prints to people on the picket line to take home to their families to show that they were standing up. Then I began to realize that the photographs themselves had a meaning beyond what I was using them for, in that they were a documentation, especially at that point, of the changing demographics of the workforce – especially in factories here in the East Bay.
On the one hand, we had a lot of factory closures. . . . Also, lots of Mexicans and Central Americans were coming into the workforce. Before I got there, black workers had broken certain racial barriers at work too, so you could sort of see that. The photographs showed this and what people’s response to it was, which in my case was to organize unions and go on strike. That was sort of the root of the kind of work that I did and in a way it still really has a lot with what I do.
MB: You were a factory worker at one point. Is that how you first got involved in union organizing?
DB: Yes and no. I needed a job. I had kids and a family, and I needed an income. But also in the 60s and 70s radical movement a lot of people had the thought that workers were going to be the engine for social change. It was important to be in the factory; it was important to be where workers were to help people organize. So pretty much as soon as I started going to work, I started trying to organize unions. I got fired from a printing shop in SF for doing that, as well as from other jobs, including from the national semi-conductor laboratory in Silicon Valley.
MB: At what point did photojournalism become a large portion of your work?
DB: I started working for unions partly because I was really interested, and I think the first union I worked for was the farm workers. I think it was partly because I wanted to understand. . . I grew up in Oakland; I didn’t know anything about farm workers or Mexicans or Spanish. The union taught me about all those things. It was a real education for me. That’s also still part of what I’m doing today. My latest book was oral histories of farm workers in California, which goes directly back to that experience.
But also, after a while (especially after I got fired and blacklisted in Silicon Valley) going and working for unions also made sense. It seemed like important work – helping to build the union. I did that for a long time – about 20 years.
At the end of that, as I said, I started taking pictures and writing little articles about what we were doing….and it kind of took over my life in a way. It became more important. I took classes in the photography program at Laney [College in Oakland] and also worked as an organizer, which was a little crazy because organizers don’t have a lot of free time. But I could begin to see that I really liked doing this work and that I thought it was important. Also, I looked at it as being another form of organizing.
Organizing people is really all about changing the way that people think. Organizers do it by holding house meetings or talking to people at work. If you do the kind of work I do, you’re really still trying to change the way people think, but you’re doing it through different means – sort of on a broader scale but also less directly.
For instance, I just did a big project on documenting the Marriott Strike, the hotel strike in the Bay Area, all the way from last March when they were first thinking about it to the end of the strike. It’s still basically trying to document what happens to us as working people – what our lives are life, but also with a perspective of seeing us as actors, as social actors.
We’re not just victims of bad circumstances but we are also capable of changing them and in fact I think that’s the process that’s really the most interesting – which is the combination where you see the world that people are living in and how people respond to it and then what they do. And that’s kind of my approach to writing and photography both; that’s what I’m doing.
MB: When you say “we,” who do you mean?
DB: When I say what happens to “us” as workers, I’m talking about workers as a whole, in general. But obviously, some working people are at more of a disadvantage than others. Some people are more conscious than others. Some people do something about it and other people don’t. I mean, with…how many workers are there in the United States? We are not just a majority of the population, we are like 80 or 85% of the people who live in this country. So obviously, there’s an enormous, huge, variety. That’s one of the things that makes this fascinating.
MB: What is it that you think actually makes people do something about it? Out of all of those people, there’s a large portion that doesn’t proactively work for change.
DB: Well, I think, first of all, people still generally speaking need to be pushed into it. Usually. Not always. You know, in my generation, a lot of people got swept up into the civil rights movement, into the anti-rights movement, went into workplaces to help organize workers and that was sort of like a product of people’s political understanding, I guess you would say. But that’s by far not the way most people wind up becoming part of social movements in this country.
Usually, people are responding to a crisis in their lives or a general feeling of frustration or dissatisfaction. Looking for answers. And actually I think that that is very widespread in this country. I think that most people, actually, are frustrated and angry and looking for answers. But we are taught as people in this country to be distrustful of politics, cynical, and kind of susceptible to hot button quick answers without really having to try to understand how the system works. One of the obstacles that organizers in this country have to overcome is that you have to help people here understand how the system here works. That Trump answers – “build the wall” – are not the good answer for us. But to help people understand why that’s true, people have to understand why people are coming here to begin with.
So, it’s a process. I think it’s a combination of the pressure on people and people’s feelings of anger and frustration about it, but also things that kind of set off sparks in people’s minds to kind of help them think more deeply about their situation. And that can be a lot of things. It can be reading books, some organizer knocks on your door, reading about Bernie Sanders in the newspaper and saying, “God, that makes sense to me.” But I think it’s that combination of the kind of impact of ideas and the kind of base of circumstances. It’s not say that comfortable people don’t struggle, because they do, but I think that the big motivating force for change in this country comes out of social and economic crisis.
For example, the anti-war movement had a lot to do with the fact that we had a draft. The young people had to think about whether or not they wanted to go there and what the war was about. And the civil rights movement I think had to do with the unbearable conditions for African American people in a lot of parts of the South plus this rising idea that we’re not going to take it anymore and that we don’t have to. You can trace it to people coming home from WWII, to having seen something of the world, you can trace it to radical organizations in the South, that agitated over all those years against lynching or against civil rights and those seeds got planted and finally they grew. So I think that’s how social change takes place.
So my part of it is…I used to be on the organizer side of it and now I’m on the idea planting side of it. But really they’re so closely related that it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.
MB: For migrant workers who are undocumented, is there a disincentive to organize due to the risks associated with their undocumented status, or have you seen instances of undocumented workers organizing?
DB: I went to work at the Farm Workers Union in the 70s, which is when I first started learning about immigration and immigrant rights; saw my first immigration raid; and tried to understand what it was like to be Mexican living in the United States. That’s when I first started getting interested in Mexico. If things are as bad as they are for people here, why are people coming here?! Which led to a whole interest in Mexico, and I write a lot about Mexico.
You know, I’m an activist – a journalist, or an activist documentarian – so one of the places where that activism happens is in the immigrant rights movement. I’ve been an immigrant rights activist for a long long long time. The first people who kind of taught me about it were farm workers. One of the things that I could see was that, as you said yourself, not having papers makes it riskier to go out on strike, join a union, but it doesn’t stop people. In fact, most of the people who belong to the united farmworkers union are undocumented. So obviously it didn’t stop people. It’s not to say that there aren’t conflicts between people who have papers and those who don’t. But certainly I could see that people were willing to struggle.
And then my job as an organizer was almost always talking to immigrants and people of color and a lot of it talking to people who had no papers in foundries and factories. That was mostly who we were organizing.
So it wasn’t just learning that people could do it, but trying to figure out as an organizer with those workers how to defend themselves against the risk you’re talking about – what you can do if your boss threatens to call the migra on you; what to do if the migra actually shows up at the factory that you’re working at. Very practical questions like that – that also lead to a certain level of political immigrant rights activism.
I’ve been part of working groups to sort of change immigration laws, big debates over whether we need to have enforcement, what the border should look like, so I’m very involved in that too.
In fact the new book that I’m working on is about the border. And it’s trying to look at the border as not just a wall and not just a place that people cross in order to come here, but it is a place where people live. It is also, especially on the Mexican side of it, it is the scene of lots and lots of social movements and social struggle about the conditions that people have there. So it’s like 25 years or almost 30 years of photographs and interviews and this is to sort of try and document the border as a region of people in movement kind of – look at that.
MB: So what seeds are you trying to sow through projects like that?
DB: You know, my blog, I originally called it the “reality check,” because the idea is that, first of all if we’re going to talk about immigration or migration laws or the workplace, etc. let’s look at who’s there, what those situations look like, listen to the situations of people who are there, and then try and figure out what to do based on that. So that’s sort of like what the seed planting idea is. When I was an organizer, I used to write a lot of leaflets, which were urging people to immediate action – go on strike or boycott this or whatever – I had to sort of cure myself of that when I started sort of trying to move away from being an organizer and work as a journalist.
So I think now what it’s really more is trying to draw a picture of the world, or part of it, in an accurate way, in a fair way, but certainly in a partisan way too.
I don’t believe in neutrality; I don’t think that anyone is really objective about anything. I have a war with the journalism school in Berkeley and the way that they treat neutrality in journalism, because I think that oftentimes that is used as a pretext for ensuring that the politics that appear in the newspaper reflect the editorial position of the owners and the people who manage the paper.
You know, you read the foreign coverage of the New York Times and no one in their wildest imagination would believe that this is objective journalism; in fact, the reports don’t even try to pretend that it is. They just try to pretend that this is the only way you can possibly see the world. But objective and neutral?! Not in a million years.
Choosing what to write about; choosing who to talk to; choosing whose eyes we’re gonna take a look at the world through [impact the lens through which you tell a story]. Our mainstream media looks at the world through the eyes of people who have power. Unfortunately, where working people and people of color appear in our media world, they generally tend to appear as victims. You know, there is a certain muckraking tradition in journalism here that a lot of lip service is paid to, but it doesn’t necessarily see people as actors very much and able to change it. So I think that I very consciously try to do the work that I do in a way that pays attention to how people analyze their world.
For example, I wrote a long political biography of a man named Rufino Dominguez about a year ago right after he died. Rufino, apart from being a friend, was a very crucial figure in the migration of people from Oaxaca to the United States, and helped to organize some very important organizations both here and in Oaxaca. So I was trying to not only present the ideas that he contributed toward – and he contributed to some really brilliant ones – because he talked about the duality, for instance, of the fight for the rights of migrants in the countries that they’re going to as well as fighting for the right to not migrate in the places that people are coming from. In other words, there have to be political and economic alternatives in the towns that people are growing up there so that a young person growing up there can actually decide, in a voluntary way, whether to leave and go to the US or whether to stay and have a future with dignity to it. Rufino was a very important person in developing that idea. In fact, I was so enamored of that idea that I wrote a book about it called The Right to Stay Home.
So the whole biography was to try to figure out what was Rufino’s political history, where did he come from politically, what were the currents of thought that helped him to develop both the ability to organize people but also the ideas that he had. So I think that this is really a very important part of documentary work – we listen to how people analyze their world and understand the ideas that they come up with and not just treat people as victims.
MB: Do you photograph people in Mexico to highlight circumstances there as well?
DB: Absolutely. That border book I was talking about…there’s a section in the book called “Communities of Resistance,” which is sort of a Mexican phrase, and what they are these communities that are along that northern part of Mexico along the border. If you go back 60 or 70 years, there was hardly anybody living there. And now there are cities of millions of people – so one of the things that’s happened is that people – poor people – have sometimes organized themselves and they’ll take over land that is owned by the Federal government (before they changed Mexico’s constitution, basically to help people become secure in their land-holding titles), you were entitled to settle on Federal land in Mexico if nobody else was there. They changed the constitution to throw that out because, you know, it was not a good policy for attracting foreign investment.
There are a number of communities that I have taken photographs in who were looking for places to live and settled there. So they’re communities of very poor people – so the first thing you see in the photographs is how poor they are. But they are also communities – first of all, just to be willing to do that, you have to fight the Government – the Government’s going to bring in the police; try and stir up contra movements within your own community; leaders will be sent to prison – so they are very activist ones. And some of the struggles in the factories to organize independent unions in the factories have come out of those communities. So to me they’re really interesting because they have this combination – you can see it visually – you can see the poverty of people but you can also see them in action and it’s the way I try to document what’s happening in Mexico is looking at that combination of things over and over and over again. It’s real easy in Mexico.
MB: When you take photographs, what are you looking for in a “good” photograph – one that is trying to convey your desired message or achieve your desired result?
DB: Talking about photographs of people, because I’m not basically a landscape photographer, so usually its people: One of the things I’m looking for is emotion – a feeling of intimacy; a feeling of closeness. I was at Horace Mann Elementary School in Frank Lara (a teacher and community activist in the Mission). You know, kids are fun – they’re very aware you’re there and have this desire to mug for you and you have to wait for it to pass. But they’re also very accepting so it’s easy to get close.
I take a lot of photos with a wide angle lense but getting really close so you can see the person big in the frame but you can also see the context – that’s sort of a classic environmental portraiture technique.
Timing. You know, still photographs are a slice [in time] – they’re different before; different afterwards; you’re just going to pick out that one moment. You’re always looking for moments – you’re trying to predict what’s going to happen or where you want to be. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it gets to the place where I’m not really thinking about it consciousness – I’m in the zone. . . . You have to trust yourself and develop the instinct to do that, but timing is a very important part of it. And watching people and seeing what’s going on with them. I’m always looking for people expressing something with the way that they’re moving or the expression on their face.
MB: I read that that, from your perspective, photos and writing individually are not as strong as they are together. How do they work best together?
DB: It works in maybe two or three different ways. The classic way is – for example, the latest book that I have [Fields of the North/En los campos del norte] is basically photos and oral histories – even the captions on the photos are sometimes extended quotes from someone in the picture. We’re listening to voices and looking at the images and the combination is giving us this much richer idea of that part of the world and the people in it – what they think, what they have to say, what they look like. You’re sort of getting a deeper understanding. So that’s one way of doing it.
Another way is, I do a lot of writing, so sometimes I’ll write about something. For example, I covered a meeting between farmworkers union in Baja California and one in Washington State and wrote about the things they found they had in common with each other – which was a lot. So the article gets illustrated by photographs of some of the people quoted in the article. They all get used to illustrate the story. And that’s another way.
Generally speaking, especially now, I don’t think I will actually sell an article without pictures. You want an article for me, you have to run the pictures. I don’t have to fight so much anymore because they know this is what I do and they like.
Occasionally I’ll do is what I call photo essays. They’re really basically a string of photographs together. Newspapers, magazines, and websites are run by editors who are word people. So they will almost never run a selection of photographs that is just the photographs, or photos with captions. They’ll want a story even if it’s a brief one. So I’ll give them the story. But they’re really things that are carried by the photographs. So that’s another way of doing it.
I think in some journalism schools, young photographers are taught that the photograph must be iconic, meaning that it has to stand by itself regardless of the context with no explanation. I find this a kind of problematic idea. I think that nothing, especially documentary work, context is very important. You can change the meaning of a photo by changing the context in which someone is looking at it.
Words and images react with each other to produce the politics. So when you talk about the iconic image – journalism schools are trying to pull the politics out of journalism – which is a way of making it more conservative, more acceptable to the New York Times editors or whatever.
Think of the young girl naked running down the road with smoke rising from the burning village behind her. You can understand that picture without knowing it’s the Vietnam War. I think most people will understand that it’s war. But if you understand which war and if you understand who bombed the village, then I think the photograph becomes much more political. The reason it helped end the Vietnam war was not just because it was a generic photograph of a young girl fleeing a burning village, but because it symbolized the horror of the Vietnam War, that our bombers were bombing that village and that young girl was fleeing the napalm into the arms, ironically, of the US soldiers who were participating in it.
MB: Regarding the photo essay “Mexicans Greet Their New President” what were you trying to convey there?
DB: It was a project borne out of necessity. I was never interested in doing it, but I guess if I really wanted to and really tried, I might have been able to engineer myself into the group of photographers that were up at the stage when AMLO got the staff of office from the indigenous groups that were there, which was certainly a very important thing in Mexican history. We all knew what was going to happen and why it was important and that he was recognizing that Mexico is a multi-cultural country. The first president of Mexico to ever talk about cultures of Mexico plural. But I didn’t really want to do that. Partly because there are already people doing that.
I was more interested in how are people reacting to this enormous political change that is taking place – ordinary people who are interested enough to be wanting to come to the zocalo to see the thing happen but not the powerful and influential people that will be sitting in the Mexican congress. I watched the speech on TV and thought it was a remarkable and very important speech. As a foreign photographer, I couldn’t get into the Mexican congress.
As a photographer, I wanted to look at what was happening to people. In some ways, you can predict what some of it will look like. People will move down these avenues in downtown Mexico City, which are the old colonial buildings, so it’s a great environment in which to take pictures. Then they’ll be in the zocalo, which is a huge square with a million people in it.
I just kind of walked around taking pictures of people there. Some of the pictures are very overtly political. Lots of people had flags, banners, signs that all have AMLO Mexico and similar writing on them. To me, that’s important to have in a photograph. That’s what people are saying through what they’re carrying.
One of the pictures I put on the website is a guy that’s part of a bus drivers’ movement that I worked with 25 years ago, and he was appealing to AMLO for justice for their cause which they are still fighting. And so in the background, you have part of the banner which says Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and you can read enough of it to know that his name is there. What you’re really doing is reading the emotion on his face. It’s really about what’s going on in his face.
Others are not so overtly political. I’m just trying to shoot what’s there. It’s like the world is a rich and complicated and marvelous place, so I’m not trying to limit it by saying that the only pictures we’re going to show here are people with the banner marching down the road, although there are some of those too.
I was actually looking for people marching into the square and there were not a lot of people marching and then at the end as I was leaving, there were these people marching down one of the avenues. I was like “Oh, thank God!”
MB: Do you see any changes occurring as a result of the politics with respect to immigration here in the U.S.?
DB: There have been lots of changes. We could talk for hours about the terrible things that Trump has done. On the other hand, I thought that the fact that people spontaneously went out to the airports when he issued the first anti-Arab order; shut down those airports; in San Francisco they got 50 people out of detention – I haven’t seen that before. There were all those women coming out there two marches a year apart.
People are upset, angry, trying to organize in different ways. I’ve been taking pictures – at the marches. One of the reasons that I was taking pictures at the local 2 strike – I would have been there anyway, but it was really interesting and a morale booster that this happened right in the middle of all this Trump shit. Here they do a strike against the largest hotel chain in the world and they win?! You know, life is not just full of terrible news.
MB: Do you have any upcoming projects?
DB: The book is the one I’m trying to get enough time to finish; or at least get a proposal together then we’ll see. Publishing photo books is really really really hard. The last one I was able to publish was because a university in Mexico decided to do it and then I was able to use that to leverage the University of CA into co-publishing. They all take some extraordinary amount of effort and luck to do. I’ve published books that are just texts; it’s easier to be a professional writer than a photographer.