Journey into a vital but troubled region
Ken and Melanie Light embarked on a five-year photographic journey of a region known for its agricultural plenty – and the marginalization of its people. In their book, “Valley of Shadows and Dreams,” the Lights dig deep into the harsh truths of farm workers’ daily experiences in California’s Central Valley and take a hard look at the legacies of politics, bureaucracy and control in the region. California Watch interviewed the Lights about their experiences reporting in the Valley.
“In this book you will find a powerful indictment not only of what has happened lately in America’s largest state, but also what is happening across this country right now. The abuse of illegal immigrants, environmental degradation, the madness of a real estate bubble, and all the other problems of the Central Valley are unfortunately relevant nationwide. Ken and Melanie Light bring great compassion and an eye for beauty to this subject, facing hard truths but refusing to despair.”
—-Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation
“Valley of Shadows and Dreams beautifully captures the contradictions at home in the Central Valley — between agricultural wealth and farmworker poverty, between natural beauty and man-made destruction, between the powerful and the powerless. Ken and Melanie Light’s work puts a face on the disparitieis eperienced by farmworkers in some of the richest agricultural areas in the world.”
—-Caroline Farrell, Executive Director, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment
About the Authors
This is the second collaboration between photographer Ken Light and author Melanie Light. (Well, third if you count their daughter.) Previously they produced Coal Hollow, which presents photographs and oral histories that chronicle the legacy of coalmining in southern West Virginia.
This project began when Melanie was researching background information on Hansel Mieth, one of the first woman photographers at Life Magazine and a politically active social documentary photographer in the 1930s and 1940s. As part of that research she had to go over the birth and death records for Tulare County. Pouring over the old, loopy letters made with a fountain pen, and scrolling throug the microfiche of the lettuce strike in Tulare, suddenly the vast acreage around her teemed with life and history. She began to notice numerous developments going in over prime agricultural land and thus started a five year exploration of California’s Great Central Valley.
We were astonished by the frenzy of development there. Massive tracts of agricultural land were being turned into cul de sacs and suburban neighborhoods. Though we started to explore that story, we soon discovered a complex web that went far beyond residential development. As we witnessed the real estate bubble implode in the valley, we expanded our story to what I can only describe as a slow motion train wreck of unsustainability. This project gripped me at many levels because the issues are played out in the valley American style but they are the global challenges of our generation: water, land use, population, growing economic disparity. It will be fascinating to see how the pressure between a growing population and the limits of the earth unfolds; how the challenges are met or how we fail to find a model for sustainability.
Ken Light’s published work includes Coal Hollow, Witness in Our Time, Texas Death Row, Delta Time, To the Promised Land, and With These Hands. He has exhibited internationally and received numerous grants and awards including three NEA grants and the Dorothea Lange Fellowship. He is currently a professor and director of the Center for Photography at the University of California, Berkeley and a Laventhol visiting professor at Columbia University.
Melanie Light’s most recent publication is Coal Hollow. Her other work includes special-edition books. Among them are Night at the Met, with photographs by Larry Fink, and Mad Day Out, with photos of the Beatles. She was the founding executive director of Fotovision, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the international community of documentary photographers, and is the recipient of grants from the Soros Documentary Fund and the Rosenberg Foundation. Light teaches and lectures internationally.