Jackie Nickerson’s life took a dramatic turn in 1996 when she went to visit a friend in Zimbabwe. The US-born photographer had spent over a decade in New York contributing to glossy magazines such as Interview, Arena, GQ and Wallpaper. But Zimbabwe made such an impact on her that a two-week trip turned into five years of roaming across sub-Saharan Africa with her camera. The result was Farm, a series of portraits of agricultural workers that reflected her concerns about food security, sustainability and human rights.
Nickerson’s new body of work Terrain, which has been turned into a book and an exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC, pushes the debate further. This time her subjects, again subsistence farmers, have their identities masked yet their poses and props reflect their relationship to the landscape. Neither romanticized nor stereotyped, these statuesque figures exude a sense of belonging and strength.
What issues does Terrain address?
Terrain is about the value we put on labor and the environment. We are all indivisibly linked to the earth but because of technological advances in agriculture, we’ve begun to believe that we are somehow separate from it.
Why keep your subjects’ identities a mystery?
It is a means of showing how farmers are obscured and overwhelmed by their work. These people are central to a huge metrical cycle from farm to table so we as consumers should think more about how our food is made and who produces it.
Your images cover a lot of ground geographically - Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe - yet blur these boundaries. Why?
Terrain is not about ethnicity. I understand the cultural differences of the places and people in Terrain. But the land issue is pan-African - the power of nature in the context of political power.
How did you built rapport with each farmer?
It was very much a collaborative process. I would show them pictures I’d taken and ask them to make suggestions as to how they could create a similar effect from their own working environment. I also took classic portraits of them and their families and sent them copies. We had a lot of fun making the images together.
Africa is often portrayed in Western media as a place of want and strife. How does your work challenge this assumption?
This was my overriding question when I first arrived in Africa. One woman in Mozambique said, ‘Please don’t take our picture because you’re just going to show the world that we’re poor and we don’t feel like that.’ So I have tried to create a visual language that has an aesthetic beauty and that portrays farmers as modern individuals.
Terrain is at Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC from January 16h to February 20th, 2014.
Images: courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC