Manuel Ortiz held out his hands to the camera, revealing decades of toil — callouses, scars and creases embedded with soil that multiple hand washings wouldn’t scrub clean. Photographer David Bacon first saw him in 2015 as he pushed a shopping cart full of cans and bottles through an alley in Yakima, Washington. Ortiz first came to the United States in the 1950s under the Bracero program and continued working the agricultural fields of California and Washington for six decades.

But when he met Bacon, Ortiz was in his mid-80s and too old to work in fields, so he redeemed cans and bottles to cobble together enough money for rent and food. With a single photo in Bacon’s signature style — an uncropped black and white image set in a hard black border marking the edge of the full frame — he captured decades of hard labor that provided food for millions, but more importantly he reveals the continued strength Ortiz’s hands hold to survive in a society that had continually undervalued his work.

“It’s a powerful image,” said Roberto Trujillo, associate university librarian and director of Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections. “An elderly man’s hands, just his powerful hand, scarred and worn from working in the fields day in and day out for probably all his adult life.”

The photograph of Ortiz, entitled “The hands of Manuel Ortiz show a life of work,” is one of 200,000 images spanning three decades shot by Bacon that are now housed in Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections, which acquired Bacon’s archive in the winter of 2019. The collection was launched this fall under the exhibit title Work & Social Justice: the David Bacon Photography Archive at Stanford, after more than a year of cataloging the images, original film negatives, color transparencies and digital files.

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3K8A2871As the sun rose on the damp, cold winter morning nearly 200 hundred people gathered outside a chain-link fence in the Port of Tacoma quietly chatting with heavy suitcases and duffle bags in hand. The dark silhouettes of large ships finally filled in with color and detail, but I was still unable to determine which one we’d be boarding later that day. I was nauseous with apprehension. Things hadn’t gone as planned, other jobs had fallen through and I was stuck with my last resort of working as a seafood processor on the Bering Sea.

When the gate finally opened there was a mad rush to be in the front of the line, myself and a few of newcomers didn’t realize just how long the wait would be if we were caught at the end. We were abrasively ordered to form a single-file line; yellow caution tape was then used to create our pen. Forklifts buzzed back and forth unloading a few months worth of food for the 250 or so people who would be living aboard.

I looked around and saw a veritable United Nations of low-wage workers: Somalis, South Sudanese, Filipinos, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders, francophone-Africans, a few Arabs, a smattering of Mexicans, and a handful of Americans among others. We were all ready to give our labor for $7.75 an hour, but for that we had to give up our lives for the next four to six months. All free time would be spent sleeping, eating or fraternizing onboard a large floating factory on the Bering Sea. We’d be lucky to set foot on land four times in the coming months.

Continue reading “Jumping ship, before getting on: A brief encounter with the underbelly of the fishing industry”