Being "seen" was something I struggled with growing up. Mum tells stories of how in my early years we would go to a party or family gathering, and I would be the one standing back, wary of people and my surrounds, and seemingly preferring my own company than others. I never really considered myself an introvert, it was the only way I knew, but I did know that noisy people really drove me crazy.
I chose not to be seen but millions of people don't have that option. I recently ended a relationship with someone who would tell me I didn't understand what it is like not to fit in, not to be accepted, seen for their talents, recognized for their individual being (not doing) and it frustrated me that this divide exists in what should be our "evolved" first world country. I
Living in California and working in Napa Valley, the rich and poor divide is evident in daily life. Many local workers, predominantly migrant, many undocumented, cannot afford to live where they work, and travel for hours to be able to provide services to those few who own, develop or manage the properties that keep the economy turning and the Valley thriving.
In Napa Valley, harvest would simply not be possible without the local worker community who keep the viticulture and winemaking wheels turning. Harvest this year started two to three weeks earlier than normal, and with a ton of travel taking me out of the region, I captured only a brief glimpse of the 2015 harvest. Between the fires, a long drought and somewhat early start, I missed much of the action, but did manage one morning at Atlas Peak to photograph the Michael Mondavi Family’s 15-acre prized Cabernet Sauvignon being harvested.
The sun was still an hour from hitting the horizon, and yet when I arrived at the 15 acre vineyard site, 40+ men were already assembled at the end of the vine rows, huddling over thermoses of coffee, chatting in Spanish and ready to work. I spotted only one white picker in the sea of hispanic gents, ranging in age from 21 to 70+. Many crews are paid on time to quantity picked, so the more efficient, the better the pay. Thankfully this morning was very cool, a welcome reprieve for what is certainly hot, sweaty and relentless work. The physical intensity of picking cannot be underestimated. Endless hours, days and weeks of bending over rows less than 3 feet high to capture and secure the fruit, moving with deft hands an swift knives, always conscious not to damage the fruit, or cut themselves. They move quickly, clearing completing 500 meter rows in less than 10 minutes, emptying an endless sea of grey picking buckets to dump in tractor bins that will be soon loaded on a flat-bed truck to head to the winery for processing.
Boxes are kicked along the ground as the men move swiftly, the sounds of bunches dropping into buckets, intermittently interrupted by what sounds like Spanish show-tunes, or a joke. They pause only to allow another full bin to pass by, or to commence a new row. The men smile and joke as they graciously let me take their photo or dart between the rows, jumping on the back of a moving tractor, or find myself on the ground, all in an attempt to capture some of the action; I often wondered what they thought of this strange lass laden with cameras, tripods and lenses.
At one point, one of the crew leaders jested to the group that every photo taken of him would cost me $100, as he was famous. The other team members laughed and as he made eye contact with me, he winked, dispelling any concern or confusion I may have harbored that the joke was on me. In fact he was delighted to see the crew being finally captured doing great precise, efficient and flawless work.
The enormity of the happiness in being seen didn't strike me until I returned home to process the images. Amid all the chaos, the bustle, hustle and noise of a vineyard being picked, arose these images of men smiling, poised, you can see the light in their eyes and the beauty in their soul. A beauty that deserves to be seen. To be celebrated. People with pride in their work, pride of their culture, and the life they were creating, simply by being who they were and doing the work.
My harvest 2015 was a very humbling one. I am in the process of printing every man's photograph and give it to them to do with as they please. I secretly hope that one image will end up framed on a mantle piece, so that relatives, friends and loved ones can see the same beauty that I saw that morning. That would fill my heart more than any fancy bottle of 2015 vintage wine.