Communities on the Move

David Bacon's photographs of immigrant workers showcase community

| Utne Reader March / April 2007

Editor's note: David Bacon is a photojournalist who writes frequently on immigration and labor for the American Prospect, New America Media, and the Nation. His latest book, Communities Without Borders (Cornell University Press, 2006), presents a photographic view of transnational communities, including images and narratives from both sides of the border. Bacon is based in Northern California but has photographed immigrant communities throughout most of the United States, in parts of Central America, and most recently in Colombia.

What informs your photographs of immigrant communities and migrant workers?

I've been a documentary photographer for almost 20 years, and from the beginning I've been interested in documenting the effects of globalization on ordinary people -- people at the bottom. Because one of the main effects of globalization is migration, I've been very interested in immigrant workers.

I'm really interested in culture, and the way in which people bring their culture with them. I define culture pretty broadly, so it includes dances, food, language, and so on, but also includes the way communities are organized, the things that people do together. For instance, Mixtecs and other indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico, have a custom that they call the tequio, in which people work together on a common project to benefit the village they live in. People bring these traditions with them, of acting in an organized way, which I think is part of how migrant communities survive here in the United States.

It seems that we don't often hear migration discussed as a journey with myriad causes.

It's partly because the media cover migrants once they're here and don't give nearly as much attention to what happens in their communities of origin. There was some coverage, for instance, of the turmoil in Oaxaca, but it doesn't connect the dots -- it doesn't say that the same kinds of social conditions that are bringing people into the streets are also displacing them as communities and setting them into motion on the migrant trail to the United States.

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