Review by Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, Library Journal, 15 December 2002
After two and a half years in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique, Nickerson, an experienced, Boston born photographer, compiled this photographic collection of African agricultural workers in their daily routines. Mainly portraits, the photographs present their subjects with befitting simplicity and dignity. Their hardened frames, tested bodies, and vibrant spirit tell a continent’s tale of economic want and unfading hope. Nickerson registers everything about her subjects in minute detail, sincerely and without commentary, allowing then to live through her lens. The result is a display of dignity amidst want, pride in labor, and perseverance in spite of limited resources. Nickerson brings these people to our attention not so that we may pity them but admire and bond with them. The quality of the 98 colour and black-and-white reproductions complements that effort. Recommended for all public libraries.‘Faces of African Farming’
Review by Helen Warrell, ‘Geographical magazine, September 2002, pgs. 58-59
Considering that people have been farming in Africa for over 200,000 years, one would imagine that even an accomplished American photographer would be hard pushed to find an original perspective on this ancient ritual. Jackie Nickerson however, has risen to meet the challenge with a collection of photographs that capture the spirit of Africa’s present-day farming with an incisive sharpness that challenges our previous conceptions, elevating the human face of agriculture above the landscape of the farm itself. The farm-workers that stare into the camera lens are strikingly individual, each face preserved in implicit detail; but Nickerson’s skill is in turning a set of separate portraits into a comprehensive picture of a whole continent. Just as Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that the American photographer Walker Evans’ work on Alabama farm-workers “showed us contemporary America”, so Nickerson’s images from Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa convey a powerful sense of how farming in Africa works today.‘Africa: Elegance of the Natural’
Review in Munchen Merker, 10 September, 2002
No, this is not a model from a fashion agency, who wears the latest expensive understatement. This young man who seems proudly rooted to the soil, is David Baulen, tea grower from Malawi. His hat and his trousers that he has imaginatively made are composed of fabric, plastic and paper. He wears these working clothes in style and with a certain elegance. In the background the landscape bears witness to it’s natural grace. That, in any case, is the story told by the incredible photos of the British photographer Jackie Nickerson. In 1997-2000 she toured the African continent lived, and photographed, on the farms in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Her rich harvest, from the rice and wheat fields, from smallholdings and the plantations created by Europe, has resulted in a format book of photographs: Living with the Earth - Africa. In this straight talking book, one is shown people full of self-confidence, the strength that they display coming from the earth. In the process, Nickerson has used her camera to capture the details- the naked foot, the unbowed heads, a piece of plastic that looks like organza. An impressive demonstration of brilliant creative genius.‘Colors in the Field: Portraits of Workers from Africa’
Reviewed in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26 September 2002
The Western view of Africa is often colonial, sometimes it seems as if there were no other historical perspective between black and white. On the other hand, it doesn’t help to jump to hasty political correctness. But at least this can lead to insightful thinking, as you look from one perspective to another. There is reason to view Jackie Nickerson's collection of portraits of agricultural workers from the southern Africa with skepticism. However, this American fashion photographer shows us pictures of proud, tireless working people with compassion and concern. The photos are surprising. They show people that have little more than what they’re wearing. But the portraits are neither fashionable folklore misery nor are they styled mythology of Africans. Nickerson shows us much more. She sees what’s actually in front of her eyes. The gaze of the subjects captures the observer, and never creating the impression of being posed. The impression is of the dignity of the people and of nature and this is reinforced by the dramatic lighting: the glistening afternoon sky transforms the colours in the fields in light-dark hues creating a complete world.Photo-eye
Best Book Award 2002
Nickerson’s work is refreshing and substantial for a variety of reasons. For one, her color prints vacillate between rich hues and a bleached tonality. All of the work is printed in color but some images have been printed almost monochromatically, allowing this or that single color to barely present itself. The intentional austere effect is akin to the washed-out appearance things acquire under the burning midday sun of the African farmlands where she photographs. Machinery is virtually non- existent in these agricultural communities and Nickerson’s work focuses on the people, clothing and inventiveness that is cultivated through poverty. Her work gracefully straddles the line between document and testament – think sharecroppers by Walker Evans – and for that reason alone her work is worthy of attention.‘Field Study’
Review by Giles Foden, Conde Nast Traveller, August 2002, p.34
Giles Foden finds dignity and beauty in the harshest places One can rarely say a book of photographs is a classic, but I find myself wanting to say this about Jackie Nickerson’s Farm (Jonathan Cape). The book is the result of a project undertaken by a successful magazine photographer who threw it all in to spend two and a half years traveling through Southern Africa taking portraits of farm labourers in the midst of their daily toil. It is a powerful piece of photojournalism – there is something majestic about the characters featured and the way Nickerson has depicted them. The publishers have made a comparison with photographer Walker Evans, who, with writer James Agee, published a classic account of US rural workers in the mid-1930s, Let Us Now Parise Famous Men. Nickerson’s images, like Evans’s, project the dignity of her subjects; and in so doing question their relationship with both her and other observers – the background to this relationship is a global economic system in which farmers such as these harvest the shrink-wrapped mangetout we purchase in Sainsbury’s and Tesco.‘Ordinary People’
Review by Eviana Hartman, Vogue (USA) August 2002
Jackie Nickerson’s photos marry style and substance.
Farm (Jonathan Cape), a book of images whose arresting elegance belies their quotidian subject matter.
Tinted with muted colors to mimic the blinding effect of the African sun, the photographs render the rough textures of laborers’ lives – mud-caked feet, wrinkles finely etched by decades of dry heat – with almost hypnotic precision. Most surprisingly, though, is the stylish inventiveness of her subjects, without wealth or the influence of Western media, dress themselves for work. A metallic skirt looks as if it could have been lifted from Helmut Lang’s fall runway; an apron fashioned from scraps of oilcloth is draped as extravagantly as any Belgian confection; and the boys layer hand-me-downs with hip-hop insouciance. “My friends in the fashion industry ask “did your stylist do this?”” Nickerson says. “These are just working clothes, though you might think they had been copied from something. But these people certainly didn’t get their ideas from TV or magazines”.
Nickerson’s images might, at times, resemble the pages of a fashion magazine, but they owe just as much to Walker Evans’s Depression- era South or the emotionally charged portraits of August Sander. By combining a fashion photographer’s aesthetic with a photojournalist’s unflinching realism, Nickerson, like her subjects, transforms the raw material of ordinary everyday life into something extra-ordinary. And in the process, she portrays Africa – a continent that, in her mind, “is too often associated in the media with famine or corrupt dictators or safari holiday” – as a place who essence lies in the everyday strength and grace of its people.‘FARM’
Interview by Johan Lindskog, 2008
(This interview appeared in SOIL magazine, Sweden, December 2008)
What made you do the Farm series? Why did you choose this subject? What was the appeal?
Working this series of photographs wasn’t planned - it is the direct result of my own personal experience. I went to Zimbabwe to stay with a friend whose family had a farm near Harare. I loved the country but felt constrained by the nature of the social life there, which meant that I wasn’t meeting any indigenous Zimbabweans socially and I began to feel claustrophobic. It was obviously a hang over from the colonial tradition and I felt that the country hadn’t exactly left it’s colonial past behind it. I began to walk around the farm where I was staying to meet people. After a few months, I decided to start to take pictures and decided to concentrate on working people in their working environment. I bought a small flatbed truck and traveled around South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique as well as all over Zimbabwe. I stayed in the rural areas and gravitated to the place where people worked – in the fields – and began to try to create a visual language that made me look right at the person, as an individual, in their own right.
How did you do it and how long did it take you to complete the series?
It was slow process but I wasn’t in any hurry. This was as much about the experience as the picture making. It was a life changing experience. I would drive around and see something interesting then stop and chat to people. Then if I still thought something was interesting I would ask if I could take a picture. Nothing was added or taken away from any picture and I didn’t ask people to pose in any way. The process from taking the first picture to the last was 4 years.
How did the farmers react to your presence?
They were friendly and also very curious. Some of the questions most often asked were, “Where are you from? What are these pictures going to be used for? Do you work for the government? Are you a journalist? What are you doing this for? Is it going to be in a newspaper?”
What was your own reaction when you got close to the farmers and faced their life conditions?
When you first meet someone you’re just concentrating on having a chat with them, having a conversation. They’re just ordinary people like you and me. So you’re thinking – ‘this person is nice or this person is funny’. So my first reaction always depended on whom I was talking to and how we interacted with each other. Of course what you see in the book are people actually working and they’re dressed for the job at hand. But I met a lot of people who were housewives or relatives who were just dressed like you and I would dress, in jeans and a T-shirt. It’s just normal life. Of course, they’re not well off at all and most people struggle to provide everything they need to for their family and children. Most of the people working on the farms also live on the farm - they live in small brick houses with basic amenities such as electricity and running water. Some people had radios, music boxes and things like that. But no luxury items like TV, cameras, washing machines or computers. The poverty they live in seems relentless; as does the work they do everyday. But they didn’t seem to let their circumstances crush their spirit. They also have something that we’ve lost in the West and that is a real community spirit. They have a very strong sense of who they are and where they come from and this gives them a very strong presence and confidence. After my experience I don’t feel at all sorry for them – I think that would be patronizing. You have to remember that these are enabled people who are very well respected in their own communities.
Can you tell us a little about the farmers? What kind of farmers where they? What kind of crop did they grow? Where they employed farmers or did they have ther own land? Under what conditions did they work, hours, payment, housing?
Most of the farmers you see in these pictures are employed on commercial farms. The size of the farms varies from a few dozen people to up to 50,000 people. The larger farms, usually the tea and coffee plantations, are usually owned by overseas corporations. Some of the farmers are independent and live on tribal trust lands – basically government owned land that they lease out to tribal elders who then distribute the land amongst their community. The farming that takes place on the tribal trust lands is all subsistence farming: that is, they only grow crops to feed themselves and their family. So you can see that there’s a lot of diversity in how the farmers work and accordingly, the working and living conditions vary also. The conditions on the larger commercial farms are probably the best because they are employing so many people and therefore they provide the basic necessities such as schools, clinics and shops.
In my eyes your work with the farm photographs have two contradictory messages. On one hand the extreme poverty of the farmers. On the other hand the photographs have a strong sense of fashion. I know at least one fashion designer who has been very inspired by the photographs and the clothes these people wear. In a way it could be seen as a quite bizarre approach to look at these people and be inspired by their clothes. Do you agree?
Relative to people in developed countries, they do live in extreme poverty. However, relative to the greater part of the African continent I would have to disagree that they live in extreme poverty. They may look very poor but as I explained, these are all working people, in a work environment and they’ve made their clothes solely for the purpose of protecting themselves in the work place. The clothes they’re wearing are their working clothes. Of course the clothes they are wearing are all worn and tattered because of the work they do. When you meet people walking around the farm who aren’t working they look just like you and me, wearing jeans, skirts and t-shirts. They make their own working clothes because they don’t have the money for specialized work clothes, and none are provided, and so they use whatever they have to hand make their own. They recycle everything that is recyclable from the farm and nothing is wasted. This includes packing material, food containers, sacking, and grain bags – anything that serves the purpose of protecting them on the job.
All the clothing in the pictures is hand made by the people who are wearing them. This makes everything they wear original and work specific and they do have an originality and beauty. I’m not surprised that they could inspire designers. I think it’s fantastic that working people can be inspiring. Africans are so often stereotyped in such a negative way and that just wasn’t my experience at all. One woman in Mozambique said “ Please don’t take our picture because the world is just going to say that we’re poor and we don’t feel like that, we always see that and that’s not what we feel”.
I have read that you yourself have said that the farmers are very conscious about what they wear in the field; it is not just a result of their harsh reality? How do they themselves reflect on their clothing?
Some of the people in these pictures just make clothing for the job that they are doing and don’t think about it too much. But some of the younger people are very conscious of what they’re wearing and really take care and make an effort. Just like in London or Stockholm or Tokyo or any place on the planet, there will always be people who care about what they wear and some who don’t think it’s so important. But I have to say that the younger people were more conscious of their dress because here is a situation where you have young men and women working together so of course they are going to want to show off a bit!
Several of your photographs focus solely on the clothing of the people, not the face. How did the farmers react when you for example photographed a skirt made of what looks like left over plastic pieces?
Well, I think they were very amused by the whole thing. Of course I would just be taking a picture of the person then it would evolve into maybe doing a bit of a close-up on them. For example, I began to take a picture of the back of a skirt with a bit of petticoat showing and it was a fantastic visual contrast between the strength of the woman and her femininity. So, as usual, there were a few people watching, in this case mostly young women, and they asked me “Why are you taking a picture of that?” so I told them I liked the petticoat coming down under the dress and that I liked it because even though they were working in a field, they didn’t give up their femininity. The idea of cropping some of the images, I felt, gave strength to the person and illustrated what I felt about this organic environment, this connection to the earth and to growing things. This relationship is the underlying theme of the work as a whole.
How did you react to their clothing? Certainly that must have been part of the appeal of this work. How would you describe these farmers sense of fashion?
When I began to take the pictures I realized that I needed to create a visual language that put across the farmers and farm workers as individuals and as modern people. Because that’s who they are. But the image that you usually see in the media of Africa and modern Africans is usually pretty negative. And that didn’t fit my own experience of whom I was meeting. Of course, when you’re walking around the farms it isn’t immediately apparent that there’s anything special about how people look and what they’re wearing because most people are just coming and going and are just dressed like you or I would dress, like in jeans or a skirt and t-shirt, but once you go into the fields and stop and talk and take some time then you begin to see something. So I thought, “why not just go into the fields and take pictures of working people because they have an originality and individuality that is unique”. So I did that. But it was a process. I had started taking pictures of everything including people’s houses, living conditions, their villages etc. But I wanted to create a visual language that was far away from the images seen in NGO campaigns and start a conversation about our own misguided perceptions of how we see things in the media and how that informs western opinion.
Another striking message in the portraits are the proud look of the people. Is that the pride of being photographed or is it the genuine pride of their work, presence and life?
I think this comes back to their sense of self and the confidence they have. The pictures were taken as part of a process of communication and interaction. The picture is just taken at the end of this process. So when I asked, “Can I take your picture?” They just did what they wanted. As you can see from the pictures, it was a serious business for them and they almost always chose not to smile. But I think it’s more about who they are rather than having a camera in front of them.
Did you have any particular "message" or "goal" with this series of photographs? If so, what is the message in your own words?
I admire and respect all the people in my book and I hope that other people can feel the same way. This was a life changing experience for me.
Since you did the Farm series you have completed a series called "Faith". Amazing photos of religious believers in Ireland. What is your next project?
I’m completing a project about the small farming community where I have a house in Ireland.
Jonathan Cape/Random House UK publishes the book Farm