An Artistic Look At African Farm Workers

In Terrain, photographer Jackie Nickerson finds cinematic moments–and poignant commentary–in daily routine.

Early one morning a couple of years ago, when photographer Jackie Nickerson was shooting in Zimbabwe, she caught a glimpse of a man–Oscar–towing huge tobacco stalks on his shoulder. He looked like a sculpture, and “I began to look to see how the farmers were obscured or overwhelmed, by their produce,” Nickerson says.


It’s an easily spotted metaphor for how physically demanding life can be on these farms, and it’s one that Nickerson thinks could be thought-provoking to her audience: “There’s a question here about how we value the people who work to produce our food,” she tells Co.Design. “There are also questions about the materials we use to grow things. There’s the challenge of the urban idealized view of life in rural areas.”

At the same time, the heaps of tobacco leaves, banana leaves, cables, and plastic crates also create a pattern of statuesque shapes out of the people who carry them. Once Nickerson, who spent years as a fashion photographer before working in Africa in the late 1990s, spotted Oscar, she started scouting for others with the weight of their work on their shoulders. Over the course of two years she visited farms of every variety: sugar cane, cattle, maize, wheat, fruits, coffee, and tea. She found help in her subjects: “I showed them the picture of Oscar and asked them if they could think of anything that they did in their working day that would produce a similar image,” Nickerson says. “So for example, on one farm, the guys said they were going to clear a banana grove and this led to [the photograph of] Elina.”

That’s not to say the photos in Terrain have been staged: “This is not just spectacle or a performance. The guys were helping me make images that are grounded in the everyday,” she says. ” Nickerson says. Instead, it might be the ubiquity of technology that made the workers might be game to pause and pose, mid-work. “Today, everyone has a mobile phone with a camera and so the process of making portraits is more relaxed and casual,” she says. “And of course, everyone is taking pictures of you, taking pictures of them.”

Terrain is on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, until February 15, 2014.

[h/t T Magazine]


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.