by Will Underwood, Director, Kent State University Press
A Books That Matter Essay
Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community; Photographs by Gary Harwood; Text by David Hassler (Kent State University Press, 2006)
This book’s story begins at a 2003 reception for the late David Citino, whose essay collection, Paperwork, had recently been published by Kent State University Press. KSU photographer Gary Harwood discreetly circulated among the guests, expertly capturing images of the event. Our marketing intern, Mario Morelos, asked Gary, “How is your migrant worker project going?” and our senior editor and I both immediately reacted with, “What migrant worker project?” That was the beginning of what eventually became Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community.
For several years before we learned of his work, Gary had been making the 35-minute drive south from Kent to Hartville, Ohio, to photograph the migrants, mostly Mexican, who work on the K.W. Zellers farm. Gary had discovered the migrant community when he was assigned to cover the KSU nursing students’ role at the nearby free clinic that serves the migrants. He hadn’t known that just a few miles south of Kent is a community of farm workers, whole families who come north on migrant visas to pick vegetables in the region’s rich black soil, from late spring up to fall’s first killing frost, before moving on to Texas and eventually back to their homes in Mexico. Largely unseen and unknown to the majority population, these workers live on the Zellers’s farm in comfortable temporary housing provided by the landowner; when not in school, older teens work alongside their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, harvesting the produce that ends up in supermarkets and on dining tables throughout the eastern United States. This nearly invisible community-within-a-community fascinated Gary. The mystery of who these people are combined with the invitingly rich visual material was irresistible to him.
For two years Gary photographed the migrants from afar in all seasons, from sunup to sundown; he was chased off the Zellers’s property more than once before being granted grudging access to photograph the workers up close by Jeff Zellers, whose reputation had been damaged more than once by sensation-seeking journalists. After a few more years Gary was no longer regarded as a stranger, but became an accepted presence. Eventually he was invited into homes, asked to attend weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, and first communions—and asked take photos! More than just a curiosity from the Anglo world, Gary became a friend. As this slow transformation from outsider to insider to friend progressed, Gary gathered a rich visual record of a tightly-knit community and the group of permanent residents and volunteers who support it.
After seeing his portfolio, we were captivated. We told him, “Gary, these need to be in a book, and we want to publish it.” But we knew that in order to complete the story, his photographs needed complementary text. I suggested Gary contact poet and writer David Hassler. Independently and coincidentally, Gary had already discussed the project with David. We signed both men up, and their collaboration began.
David interviewed the migrants and the permanent residents of the community who work, often as volunteers, to support them—nurses, social workers, neighbors, farm owner Jeff Zellers, teachers, the parish priest, the bishop. The resulting rich oral histories did not explain the photographs; the photographs did not illustrate the stories. Instead the two media worked together liked a musical score, forming a contrapuntal and complementary whole, greater than its several parts.
After working intensively with the staff at KSU Press, Gary’s and David’s joint effort became Growing Season, a record in words and pictures of a small, tightly-knit community of America’s underclass, well-treated by their conservative employer, supported by their sometime neighbors, a story that defies stereotypes of downtrodden immigrants, illegal aliens, and exploitative employers. It’s not a story of extremes of oppression and gloom but rather one of quiet dignity, joy, toil, hope, and a measure of success against tough odds. Both a collection of stunning photographs and a catalog of moving oral histories, Growing Season serves as a model in microcosm of how things can be if each of us lives up to the moral duty we have to one another and keeps the social contract whole and healthy.
Growing Season garnered financial support from the Ohio Arts Council, regional corporate foundations, and the owner of a local chain of grocery stores. It was launched in 2006 at a gala reception at the Canton Museum of Art, where an exhibit of Gary’s photographs and panels of David’s stories were on display. Several of the migrants—including children—and local community members were guests of honor. A number of tables were set up along which they sat with beaming faces, chatting with guests and signing their names next to their pictures in the book.