The Digital Journalist
John Ficara's
Black Farmers in America

by J.B. Colson

March 2006

Those of us concerned with the welfare of meaningful photography take some heart whenever a worthy project gets exhibited and published. John Francis Ficara's elegant take on black farmers in America documents a vanishing way of life and points to failures of social justice that sadly contribute to its passing. The book and exhibitions from his project are a significant contribution to the photographic ethnography of what has been one of our country's most important institutions, the independent family farm.

Ficara's photography echoes the well-known FSA documentation of 1930s America. His book's jacket cover and some of its photographs could be from 70 years ago. More importantly, he treats his subjects with the same straightforward dignity that FSA photographers like Russell Lee used in their approach to those who, as Lee would say, "are having hard times." Mutual respect, photographer for subject and subject for photographer, not only aids their interaction, it provides us, the viewers, with more direct and telling insights.

Ficara introduces us to black farmers and their families, shows us how they work, interact, and struggle with a bureaucracy that does not treat them fairly. Farm failures have been an important American social issue for decades, and the economy has been brutal for independent farmers, white and black. With photography, quotes from the farmers, cutlines at the back, and an essay by noted broadcast and print media journalist Juan Williams that outlines the history at stake, Black Farmers in America makes clear the additional disadvantages blacks have faced trying to endure as farmers.

Starting with the unfulfilled promise of "forty acres and a mule" made and broken by the federal government after the Civil War, up to 1990s reports documenting bias and hostility for blacks in the Department of Agriculture, race has been a significant disadvantage for black farmers. Here are people exemplifying the hard work and discipline that we honor as values. Yet the social and economic times are against them. Farming is about a relationship to land and nature. But it is also about a relationship to social and economic forces, markets, banks and the government that favor larger, mostly white-owned operations.

Like many other documentaries, an overarching theme of Black Farmers is failure of the American Dream. Hard work and sacrifice are not necessarily well rewarded. There is no question here of changing any of that or its outcome. It is clear that black family farms are mostly doomed (and the situation for other small farms is certainly not good). Here we are seeing the last generation that will work most of these farms. In fact, several farmers in these pictures have died since Ficara started his project in 1999. This is a report on how some of our fellow citizens have been doing. It will also serve as a visually articulate record for the future, just as the work of the FSA and other documentary projects serves us now as history.

Ficara's portraiture eschews formula, giving us a variety of distances, poses and backgrounds appropriate to the subject's nature. Matthew Grant, since deceased, in Sunday attire standing tall with his cane in the middle of a dirt road is quite a different man from Eddie Cole, seen in a face close-up. They each have a hint of a smile -- Grant, serene, Cole tough -- both knowing. More casual portraits are rich in texture and context, like that of James Davis stroking the tail of a cat as he leans against his tractor.

Large, up-to-date, laborsaving equipment characterizes most successful farms today, resources that require capital and credit not available to many black farmers. Ficara shows us farmers working by hand, with horses and outdated equipment. The great historian of rural Mexico, Jean Meyer, taught me to appreciate the study of tools and equipment. Here there are many pictures to consider in this vein. The old Farmalls still in use are already considered collectible agricultural history elsewhere. Even more primitive farming is documented with Jerry Singleton, 81, doing light plowing with his horse "Tat." Singleton leading his horse back from plowing is one of the most powerful images in the collection. Hubcaps neatly decorating a barn wall gleam between the still-strong and determined farmer and Tat being pulled along. We can appreciate such images for their fine visual structure and telling moment. We can also see them paradoxically as romantic pastorals, or evidence of personal and historic hardship.

One of the most upbeat images in Black Farmers, and its only household interior, is the Lamar family saying grace at a well-laden table. FSA photographers used mealtime to show how a family was doing. This photograph could be a Russell Lee, but Ficara has the advantage of more modern lighting.

A photograph of children helping with tobacco harvest brings back memories of working on my grandfather's three-acre tobacco farm in Connecticut. The family farm gave me an appreciation of work, nature and the land that my children missed in urban life. This documentary is about the loss of a direct connection to roots in the land, a loss now common. Hoover Johnson in his barn inspecting a tobacco leaf is a wonderful, backlit semi-silhouette. This is a true gesture, at the heart of farming: how fine is this year's crop?

What too many photographers and some of their critics miss about documentary is the significance of narrative. We expect narrative from our filmic/video documentaries, and too often ignore it when considering still photography. We all appreciate wonderful individual pictures. Dorothea Lange's migrant mother, the most honored FSA photograph, and Russell Lee's child comforting her ill mother are strong implied narratives in a frame. As powerful as they are, much of their impact depends on shared knowledge of context (the Great Depression), as well as their universal human values.

Documentary as individual photographs is quite different from documentary projects like Black Farmers that aim to give us more than fine photographs to be appreciated aesthetically or for universal values. Projects done with intense investment in the subject and presented with informed text provide important social information that is not yet widely appreciated. They engage us emotionally through picture content, text, and presentation design. The narrative ark leading through Black Farmers introduces us to the farmers, dignified and proud, and their land. Then we see where and how they work. After following encounters with the government we see dejection, less energy and assurance. Near the end, a hand-scrawled billboard spells out the inevitable outcome: "Farm for Sale." An overgrown farmhouse, like something Christo wrought with vines, closes the book. A great American tradition for whites and blacks fades into the overgrowth.

Personal documentary projects are labors of love, self-initiated and mostly self-sponsored. Like the black farmers, serious photographers have a hard time doing the work they love. Yet it is documentary more than conventional news photography that has the potential to inform us socially and spiritually. If every successful news photographers would use their skills and resources to produce a heartfelt documentary project, we would have so much more significant photography. We would better know and appreciate the lives of others. John Francis Ficara has proved it can be done.

NOTE: John Ficara's photo exhibit, "Distant Echoes: Black Farmers in America," is currently on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore, Md., until April 30.

© J.B. Colson

J. B. Colson studied under the direction of Clarence White for his BFA in photography. After serving as a Signal Corps photographer in Panama he studied documentary film at UCLA. He made non-theatrical films in the Detroit area before teaching photojournalism at the University of Texas, where he inaugurated a program at the Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. levels. In the 1980s he worked in Mexico with Jean Meyer and the Collegio de Michoacan documenting village life in the High Meseta. He still teaches a graduate course in the history and criticism of photography. He wrote the introduction to a UT Press book on FSA photographer Russell Lee, to be published in Spring 2007.