Valley of Shadows and Dreams
by Ken Light and Melanie Light

About This Project

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

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. As she pored over the old, loopy letters made with a fountain pen, and scrolling through the microfiche of the lettuce strike in Tulare, the vast acreage around her suddenly teemed with life and history. She began to notice numerous developments springing up 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. 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 we can only describe as a slow motion train wreck of unsustainability at every level: environment, social, economy. All wrought through cronyism, short sighted profit taking and winner take all policy.

This project gripped us 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. How will the pressure between a growing population and the limits of the earth unfold? The biological window is closing and already there are very few, if any workable solutions left.

We, as a nation, have lost our understanding of and values around a free market economy. As Arthur Brooks writes in his NY Times Op-Ed piece, “What can Washington D.C. learn from a Buddhist Monk?”, free markets are instrumental, not intrinsic for humans to be happy and productive. At the moment that instrument is guided by the belief that the concerns of those not in power are unimportant; that waste and neglect are justified by a profit. We must return to the moral high ground in which we wield capitalism for “Good.” At the core of our citizenship, politicking and simple living we should cultivate a concern for others’ well being. We must be concerned with creating opportunity for individuals who need it the most. Neither profits nor efficiency are more important. It has been shown over and over that when people, businesses and governments act with the greater welfare in mind, that society will flourish.

We invite you to approach life with moral empathy and turn your imagination and passion to thinking anew about these very serious threats we face. No matter that we have wrought these ills from our own weakness; that the entrenched systems seem to be pulling us intractably to our destruction. It must be done.

Melanie and Ken Light

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 coal mining in southern West Virginia.

Ken Light’s  is a social documentary photographer whose published work includes Valley of Shadows and Dreams, for which he was awarded the California Book Award, Coal Hollow, Witness in Our Time, Texas Death Row, Delta Time, To the Promised Land, and With These Hands. He has exhibited internationally, received numerous grants and awards. Light has exhibited internationally, received numerous grants and awards. He was a Laventhol visiting professor at Columbia University. Currently, he is the Reva and David Logan Professor of Photojounalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Melanie Light’s  is a writer whose most recent book is Valley of Shadows and Dreams, for which she was awarded the California Book Award. She is also co-author of Coal Hollow. She has published two special edition books: Night at the Met, with photographs by Larry Fink, and Mad Day Out, featuring rare photos of the Beatles. She was the cofounding executive director of Fotovision, and she has received grants from the Soros Documentary Fund and the Rosenberg Foundation. She teaches and lectures internationally.

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