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A conversation with photographer Noé Montes about his Coachella Valley Farm Workers project

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Noé Montes has photographed and interviewed people in the Eastern Coachella Valley for two and a half years as part of a photo documentary project  (which can be found at https://coachellafarmworkers.com). Recently, he answered the Rural California Report's questions about what the work. 

 

Rural California Report: What is the Coachella Valley Farm Workers project and how long have you been working on it?

 

Noé Montes: It is a photo documentary project about the community of farmworkers in the Eastern Coachella Valley. It focuses on the individuals that are working in various capacities to address the many social justice issues and issues of inequality that exist in the community. Most of the people photographed and interviewed have been farmworkers themselves or are the children of farmworkers. It is comprised of photography, writing and audio interviews. I started working on this in January of 2015.

 

Castulo Estrada copy

   Photo of Castulo Estrada by Noé Montes

 

RCR: What inspired you to pick the Coachella Valley? Why did you want to photograph farmworkers and other community members there?

 

NM: One of the main reasons I wanted to photograph and interview farmworkers is that I myself come from family of farmworkers and I know that there is a lot of value on the community. There is a lot to learn from about how to develop our communities in a positive way. A lot of the previous work done about farmworkers focuses on the problems in the community and often farmworkers are depicted very simply, either as examples of inequality or to illustrate some social justice issue. I wanted to add to the conversation and our understanding of this community and see what we can all learn from them.

I picked the Coachella Valley because it is a good representative example of a rural farmworker community in California. It is a microcosm that contains all the elements present in many rural American communities. Logistically it also worked in that it is close enough to where I live (Los Angeles) that I was able to travel there regularly and often.

 

RCR: Were people skeptical of your intentions when you asked to photograph them? Or did they welcome you into their lives?

 

NM: Young people were skeptical of my intentions in the beginning because they have seen other people come into the community and take but never give back, so they are protective of their community, as they should be. In time I think they saw that what I was doing was serious and that I would advocate for them. Their parents and grandparents were more welcoming and appreciative of the opportunity to tell their story and share their experiences and thoughts.

 

RCR: What about the farmworkers, the region and the local residents are you trying to show?

 

NM: Their humanity, the intrinsic drive for self and community development expressed through their lives. Their love for others and their willingness to put themselves out in order to help people in need. The resiliency and courage it takes to come from another country to start again in a place where they don’t know the language or the land so that they and their children may have a better life. I want to show how they come together to help each so that they may all move forward together, I’d like to highlight what works and what doesn’t so that other communities may learn from them.

Maria Aguirre De Banuelos

   Photo of Maria Aguirre De Bañuelos by Noé Montes

 

 

RCR: Do you feel your photos are different than how people in the Coachella Valley, or farmworkers in general, are normally depicted?

 

NM: I hope that they are because my photos are informed from my experience and, I like everyone else, believe that my life is unique. I also don’t know of many other photographers who are making work or have made work about farmworkers who were once farmworkers themselves, I wanted to add my perspective to the body of photographic work about farmworkers. I am focusing on the work that these people do to help their community rather than on the problems that affect the community, I think that is different. One very simple thing I made a point of doing was to not photograph people in the fields.

 

RCR: How have the people you photographed responded to your project?

 

NM: During the course of making this work a couple of the older people I photographed passed away and their families reached out and thanked me for documenting their stories and making photographs of them, this was very gratifying. In other cases they were thankful for the photographs and recordings of the interviews (all the people photographed and interviewed received copies of the materials). I ate many great meals and a lot of fruit and vegetables grown in the valley that were given to me as gifts. Generally most people were appreciative and encouraging.

 

RCR: Your website features photos, audio and text stories of some of the people you met. How does each of these elements help you tell their stories?

 

NM: Each of these things rounds out the personal stories a little bit. The photography documents the people’s presence, the writing adds their histories and thoughts and the audio brings the people to life in the same space as the viewer. All together they create a living portrait of the people and the community.

 

Maria and Simon Machuca copy

 Photo of Maria Machuca and her father Simon Machuca by Noé Montes

 

RCR: What drew you to the people you photographed for this project?

 

NM: I talked to many people before I started interviewing and photographing in order to identify who would be a part of the project (one person who was enormously helpful was Gina Chapa). Certain people’s names kept coming up in those conversations and I would then contact those individuals to start the conversation. In some cases I met people by happenstance, just talking to people on the street or out in the field that saw me working with a camera. In all cases the thing that I was looking for was the individuals relationship to the farmworker community, the fact that service to the community was important to them.

 

RCR: What got you in to photography?

 

NM: After high school I got an A.A.S in Electronic Technology and was working in that field for a few years but I was bored with that work so I started taking evening art classes at a community college. One of the classes was photography. I immediately fell in love with the medium and since then I have been engaged in the process of continuing to develop my skills and my thinking about photography and it’s function in our society.

 

RCR: What’s next for this project?

 

NM: I would like to distribute this work as widely as possible. This means publishing it, exhibiting it and presenting the work whenever possible. I think that it is especially important to put these stories out in the world right now when the White House is putting out a narrative about immigrants that describes us as criminals. To that end I would like to publish a book (or two) with the work, I have already presented the work at various universities (I will continue to do so), and I regularly use the work in youth workshops to teach young people about creating community and finding agency through photography. One of my goals is that this work becomes a part of an academic or institutional collection on order to add to the body of work about farmworkers.

 

Mily Trevino Sauceda copy 2

   Photo of Mily Treviño Sauceda by Noé Montes

 

 

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