Photo series offers glimpse into lives of migrant farm workers | Michigan Radio
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Photo series offers glimpse into lives of migrant farm workers

Nov 18, 2020

Dr. Eric Bouwens, a physician and photographer, spent several years in Sparta, Michigan treating migrant farm workers who were harvesting in “Fruit Ridge,” an agricultural area northwest of Grand Rapids.

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This spring, he worked in a COVID-19 clinic, and lately, he’s in his regular office, seeing healthcare workers who are dealing with the difficult effects of treating patients amid the pandemic. Some of his photography projects had to be put on hold due to the virus. But the Grand Rapids-based physician recently merged his work in healthcare with his art when he started documenting scenes from the lives of migrant workers harvesting apples in the area.

“I decided: what can I do outside that doesn’t put me at excessive risk? That made me recall that I have some unfinished business with having worked with migrant workers, and I reexamined and remembered my desire to share some from their lives,” he said.

Initially, Bouwens says, he struggled to find an apple harvesting area where he could take photos without meeting resistance. But eventually, he met a farmer who was open to it.

“He was on a tractor, and I just said hello, and surprisingly, he was very interested in my project, and he said, ‘You can come here as much as you want,’” Bouwens said.

Bouwens says the workers harvesting apples had to work hard and quickly, so at first he wasn’t able to talk with them much, and he snapped only “somewhat superficial photos of them harvesting.”

“But then I learned when is a good time to hang out in the migrant camp where they lived, and gradually was able to develop relationships with many of them,” he says. The workday was about twelve hours, but sometimes work ended early on a weekend day or started late if there was a frost, Bouwens adds.

Most of the migrant workers Bouwens spoke with were from Oaxaca, Mexico, and Guatemala. He says they were living in trailers that often didn’t have heating, so the stove served as a heat source. One woman, who is originally from Oaxaca and has been here for 17 years, told him in an interview what it was like for her when she first came to work in the U.S. Here’s an excerpt of what she said, translated into English:

“When I first arrived, it was December. It was very cold. We didn’t have any money or know anyone. I remember we were staying in a trailer. We only had one little blanket between the four of us, and no heater. And we didn’t have the money yet to buy more blankets. When we first arrived, we suffered very much.”

As Bouwens built relationships with the workers and their families, his photos began to depict a variety of scenes beyond harvesting work, like kids and families playing, doing household chores, or waiting for the schoolbus.

Bouwens says he didn’t hear of cases of COVID-19 among the people he spoke with. But this summer, some coronavirus outbreaks in the state were linked to migrant farmworkers who were harvesting fruits and vegetables. Some workers who lived in shared housing reported that farm owners didn’t take precautions to keep them safe.

From 2016 to 2018, agriculture in Michigan contributed more than $104.7 billion each year to the state’s economy. Michigan farms employ about 45,000 seasonal workers every year, and many are migrants.

“It’s really sad that many Americans are missing out on the heroic and tragic stories that are going on right around us,” Bouwens said. “I think they’re quite remarkable people.”

For more on Bouwens’ photography project, The Season: Apple Picking in Michigan, as well as his work as a physician amid the ongoing pandemic, listen to the full conversation above.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.