FRESNO, California -- "One of the problems is that in some supermarkets they report
where the peaches they sell are grown, but they say nothing about those who harvest
them" explains Ken Light during the presentation of the book, Valley of Shadows and
Dreams (Heyday, 2012) on Saturday, June 2nd, in Fresno. This is precisely the book's
purpose: to show the lives of Valley agricultural laborers and their families.
The work is a photographic essay by Ken Light, professor of photojournalism at the
University of California at Berkeley, with texts by his wife, writer Melanie Light and
with a preface by Thomas Steinbeck, son of the famous author John Steinbeck (1902-
1968 ), author of the very famous book "The Grapes of Wrath", which narrates the
miseries of immigrants from the Dustbowl, who came west to the Central Valley of
California during the Great Depression of 1929-1930.
The misery of the laborers has not changed since then, according to the authors of the
book, although the laborers are not from Oklahoma anymore, as in Steinbeck's novel, but
primarily from Mexico.
And such misery has numbers: while a farm worker makes around $16,000 per year,
his/her labor contributes to a wealthy industry of $13 billions in the Valley (in 2002,
according to the American Farmland Trust.)
"Americans have a tradition of being innovators. That's why it seems so amazing that in
the Valley business continues as usual" said Melanie, referring to the labor situation and
the lives of farm workers.
Other photographs in the book show abandoned and empty housing developments, as if
they are suspended in time, places that were about to become homes or neighborhoods.
They were built hastily by developers during the height of the construction boom and
abandoned during the economic crisis in 2007.
These developments which encroached on the agricultural land, are now muted ghosts of
an illusion of the consumption and "progress" that spectacularly collapsed, affecting the
entire Valley and now the global community.
The book, "Valley of Dreams and Shadows" has 154 pages and over 110 beautifully
printed photos. It is not a collection of pictures accompanied by texts, but a careful and
critical photographic and written narrative essay that took five years to complete. The
authors also try to show the dreams of the inhabitants of the valley, and how things seem
not to change.
The forces that are opposed to social and political change didn't cahnge their point
of view with the appearance of the book."Here comes another photographer from an
enlightened metropolis to focus on the ills of the Valley. With sugarplum dreams of
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965, famous photojournalist who made portraits of peasants,
displaced and marginalized, including those in the Central Valley) and Grapes of
Wrath importance dancing through his head, Ken Light is ready to tell the world about
his ride on what a Fresno State photography professor calls the "poverty tourism
circuit," ... documenting the usual suspects of awfulness: poverty, environmental
degradation, vanishing cultures, home foreclosures, growing economic disparity...."
wrote Donald Munro, Entertainment columnist from The Fresno Bee on May 29 (http://
He admits not even having seen the book but does refer to the contents of the book
ironically in his article titled Our Valley Through the Eyes of a Stranger on the Fresno
Bee web site. Public comments to this column were more measured and dignified than
the text of Munro.
One commentator invited Munro to attend the book launch and talk with the authors.
The invitation came from Myrna Martinez Nateras, of the Pan Valley Institute
(www.afsc.org), an organization that co-sponsored the book authors' visit to Fresno.
Munro did not attend, nor did the newspaper, The Fresno Bee, cover the event.
This attitude did not surprise the audience of about 50 people who attended the release
of "Valley of Dreams and Shadows" in the local Fresno Arte Americas. Hugo Morales,
director of Radio Bilingue (www.radiobilingue.org), and who moderated the dialogue
between authors and the public, recounted his experience when he met with a senior
executive of an agricultural business in the valley asking for a donation to an education
project for the field workers. "They said no, it did not seem right that workers become
educated because then they would leave the field and companies like ours need workers,"
said Morales. "They do not want anything to change here."
This attitude of not changing anything was evident in the 90's, when the University of
California looked at the possibility of building its tenth campus in Fresno, in the heart of
the Valley. A team of "notables" evaluated the proposal and rejected it! Finally, in 1995,
a new campus began to be built in Merced, 60 miles north of Fresno. How is it possible
to reject such an idea in an area with high unemployment and low education? Surely
because of the fear that our Valley might be seen by many strange eyes, such as Munro
These trends are reflected in all its complexity in the powerful images of Ken Light,
who is no stranger to the Valley. His interest in documenting the lives of farm workers
started in 1970, when he settled in the Bay from the East. At that time the farmworkers
movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta was still intense. "It was an
incredible story that I felt had to be documented," explains Ken.
Through the years, he produced several books devoted to farm workers and immigrants in
general "With These Hands" (1986) and "To the Promised Land" (1988) "I was working
with Ken a few years ago, in Sinaloa, Mexico," said Morales. "The intensity of his art is
The work behind the project, mostly invisible to the reader, is also intense. Melanie made
several trips to the Valley and discovered issues that would lead them to the development
of the book. She recalled her experience of seeing the birth and death records in Visalia
in the local public library, while researching for an article about the photographer Hansel
Mieth (1009-1998) who worked photographing in the valley during the Depression. The
records showed the amazing ethnic diversity that even then was part of the fabric of
Valley communities. On her drive home she found that this visit had piqued her interest
and literally opened her eyes, she was no longer just another Coastal California driving
down Highway 99, but a Californian citizen seeing many issues of the Valley in a new
way and wanting to tell others, and delve into the myriad of important social issues
that she discovered like water, undocumented workers, industrial agriculture, pollution,
governance, democracy and who's in charge, all of which are written about in the book.
Melanie and Ken also traveled to Fresno's City Hall to begin the book project on May
1st, 2006, the day of the national Immigration march, to photograph and interview
documented and undocumented workers. Some of those images are also in the book.
Melanie learned about the struggles of farmworkers throughout California's history,
some little known, even in the Valley. For example after the Great Depression of 1929-
39, the laborers were receiving less than half the salary before the 30's economic
crisis. "In 1933 and 1934 there was protests and strikes which at the end of, workers were
able to get paid a little more," said Melanie.
Then Ken compared the agricultural work with that of the coal miners, who dig up coal
from the earth, and how the profit and wealth this created was enjoyed by others, and
then the profits leave the area; and the workers and land is left impoverished.
Their impressions and their sensitivity, reflected in some remarkable photos and text,
cannot be the work of a stranger to the Valley and those who live here. Not surprisingly,
the authors dedicated the book "To those who still live in the shadows but dream of
Valley of Dreams and Shadows is available for purchase here on Amazon.com.