Faces from the Fields: Harvester
Backs bent, hoodies up, caps slung low: Vineyard harvesters are almost never seen.
Santa Rosa–based freelance photojournalist Erik Castro was determined to change that. For three years he has captured the portraits of grape pickers working in about two dozen Sonoma vineyards. All the field workers are Mexican—from the states of Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guanajuato and elsewhere—the vast majority of them men, ranging in age from 21 to 73. Gaining access initially was tricky; approaching vineyard crew managers proved key. So did showing a paper book representation of the project. And turning up early, hanging out, seizing opportunity when it presented itself, however briefly—typically at the end of workers’ shifts, often 10-hour days.
There is no posing or styling. Castro works quickly, snapping photos of the face of anyone who agrees to sit in front of a plain white backdrop and look into his camera for a few seconds. To date, almost 100 workers have participated in the ongoing documentary photo series. Many more declined: The photographer says he’s probably asked a few hundred people so far.
Castro understands. He doesn’t ask his subjects about their immigration status. His captions simply include their names, ages and birthplaces.
Physically exhausted and ready to call it a day, their weary expressions, rumpled hair and earth-stained fingers speak volumes about what it means to toil in the soil on a routine basis. The results are intense, confronting, compelling. “I didn’t want to do the typical vineyard portraits of workers holding bins or picking grapes,” says Castro, who was encouraged by a newspaper photo editor to experiment with a different approach to documenting immigrant labor. “I was looking for something deeper, more intimate and, in the end, more revealing.”
Above all, says Castro, these portraits are personal. The people coaxed to look into his lens aren’t just immigrants or laborers. They’re humans first and foremost. “I treat these people with respect; I think they appreciate that I want to see them, not that I look at them as a worker. I genuinely care about them and what they have to say.”
Grape picking, as Castro discovered, is not some kind of rural idyll. Vineyards are filled with noisy tractors and generators and exhaust smoke. There are temperature extremes: Workers don headlights to begin middle-of-thenight shifts, wearing layers to protect against the cold. By morning, they’re peeling off clothing and dealing with beating sun and torrents of sweat.
Drawn to the dark side in his work—homelessness, gangs, addiction—the award-winning Castro frequently addresses social issues through his images. A regular wine drinker—though not, he says, a wine worshipper—he photographed The New California Wine by Jon Bonné (Ten Speed Press, 2013), and includes several wineries among his corporate clients.
And, for the record, the Mexican-American Castro says admirers of his photos should check their assumptions. Castro grew up a middle-class city kid in Los Angeles, a private-school-educated culture nerd who didn’t speak Spanish. His life experience has little in common with the migrant workers who are the subjects of this series. “Documenting the immigrant experience is something I’m particularly interested in—but it could just as well be Syrian immigrants,” he says. “It’s a window into a life I’ll never live. I never thought I’d live through a period where such a large percentage of people are living in visible fear. It’s unsettling.”
Castro’s project, a work in progress titled “Harvester,” gives a platform to the largely invisible army of Latino laborers that operates on the margins of a multi-billion-dollar industry. The photographs have been featured in gallery exhibits and appeared in the New York Times and Sonoma Magazine; a book-length treatment is under consideration.
“I think these images teach us something about ourselves as much as they do about the subjects,” says Castro. “They made me realize that I totally take for granted that I don’t have to worry about someone trying to arrest me or take my kids away, or losing my livelihood. For me, that was a game changer.”