Yes we icon: SOLE food movement needs images

To mark the opening of “Water, Rivers and People (Agua, Ríos y Pueblos),” a photography exhibition about people’s relationship with rivers and their struggle to protect them from destructive dams, mining projects, and other threats, International Rivers held a panel discussion with two of the exhibit’s photographers and two river activists. One of the main themes of the discussion was the importance of images in galvanizing a movement, and it made me think a lot about the missing visual element of the SOLE food revolution.

Aviva Imhof, the Campaigns Director for International Rivers, noted that her organization relies on words to get its message out. They write reports, letters, press releases and more to support their campaigns. But images – like the photographs in the current exhibition – can reach your heart in a way that words can’t, she noted.  Roberto (Bear) Guerra, whose photographs document peasant farmers’ battle against the La Parota dam project in Guerrero State, Mexico, agreed that a still image – as opposed to a moving image on film or video – has a special power because allows us to spend time with a place or a person.

“Activists and photographers need to work together,” said Robert Dawson, a photographer and lecturer and photographer at Stanford University.

Khoteswa, Narmada River, India, 1999. Photo by Karen Robinson.

Khoteswa, Narmada River, India, 1999. Photo by Karen Robinson.

Some parts of river activism are difficult to capture. How do you use photographs to show that a river now has no fish because of dams and other human impacts? Imhof asked, while Dawson pointed out that dams are hard to photograph because they are cover vast distances.

The image at right is one of the photos in “Water, Rivers and People,” which is a selection from of a traveling exhibition of more than 400 photos that is currently somewhere in Spain. It shows a woman praying next to temple that was recently submerged by rising waters on the Narmada River caused by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India.Sponsored by International Rivers and Madera Group, the show is up at Berkeley’s David Brower Center until August 31.

The panel discussion made me think about the SOLE food movement. Does it have any iconic images?

There are certainly plenty of images included with our writing or in films, but do any have the power of some of the great icons of the past, like the man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square or Bull Connor’s snarling dogs attacking Civil Rights demonstrators in the 1960s? I can’t think of any.

One possible reason that no images have come to the forefront that the SOLE food movement covers a lot of ground and is rarely focused on a particular campaign. International Rivers, in contrast, is always working on specific campaigns — stopping a dam on this river, restoring that river. Even somewhat discrete events, like campaigning for more funding for school lunches or fighting to increase wages for farm workers, don’t seem to have the same power as something like the Tiananmen Square protests. The everyday work of the SOLE food movement — teaching people about seasonal fresh foods, starting new markets, protecting organic standards from corporate-driven erosion — offers far fewer opportunities for images.

As exciting as food policy meetings or seminars on aquaculture can be, they just don’t have the photogenic quality of, for example, Civil Rights marchers being attacked by armed thugs.

One exception to this general rule is in the area of animal welfare. Photos and particularly videos of animal abuse in factory farms — unhealthy, partially defeathered hens packed into tiny cages, videos of workers kicking turkeys, shocking pigs, forklifting cows — have led to modest reforms in livestock handling and inspired countless people to seek out alternatives, whether pasture-raised animals or a vegetarian diet. But I’d argue that such images can’t rise to the status of “iconic” because they are just too visceral, and don’t represent a single moment in time.

Am I missing something? Do we already have a collection of iconic images that I am unaware of? What areas would be best served by a partnership between activists and photographers?

Photo of Khoteswa, Narmada River, India by Karen Robinson (1999), used with permission. Background on the Narmada River can be found at International Rivers and more photos of the river by Karen Robinson can be found on her website.

3 Responsesto “Yes we icon: SOLE food movement needs images”

  1. The vegan fanatics’s images also don’t represent reality. They use instants in time, sometimes staged, to distort reality and promote their egotistical causes. They have an agenda and won’t let the truth get in the way. The reality is almost no farms or slaughterhouses are what the animal rights activists portray. Rather the farmers and butchers are almost always good guys being hurt by terrorist groups like PETA and HSUS.

  2. At Local Roots, a member who is a professional photographer (and excellent baker) volunteered to visit about a dozen of the first member farms to take photographs, intending them to be used for Local Roots publicity and such.  Several made it into a 2010 calendar, including some found here:

    It’s not just about beautiful produce, though Sofie has captured the lusciousness of ripe fruits and vegetables.  Many of her other photographs show the connection the farmers have to their land and to their animals.  At least in this area, I think Sofie’s photography has helped to show people all that is positive about supporting local food — and all the reasons why we should be more involved with our food.

  3. Mat Rogers says:

    I think another reason why there aren’t individual photos as icons of the food movement is that agricultural images are part of the American collective unconscious.  The old barn, the cows in the fields, baskets of crops, the perched rooster, amber waves of grain – these images are so iconic you find versions of them in any piece of work on sustainable food and farming with photos.  They’re part of the supermarket pastoral used by our enemies to make people think their food comes from real farms.  Almost every image of a farmer is somehow an homage to American Gothic (for example check out the portraits at  The scenes painted by the Regionalists (such as Wood’s Young Corn) are so iconic we feel that we’ve seen them many times and we have every time we go for a ride in the country.