Shooting small-scale farms around the world, 50 photographers make the case for sustainable agriculture
“It all came together very organically,” says Cheryl Newman, appropriately enough for a project about small-scale, low-impact farming. Initially signed up to work on We Feed The World for 12 months, she’s ended up spending three years on the project, commissioning 50 world-class photographers to shoot agriculture around the globe, including renowned image-makers such as Stefan Ruiz, Susan Meiselas, and Graciela Iturbide.
The aim of the project is simple – to shift the public perception of small-scale farming, which is often considered synonymous with subsistence farming but which in fact produces around 70% of the world’s food, according to a report by the United Nations.
“Photography is the language of our age and it has the ability to shift consciousness and effect change on a scale beyond any other form of communication,” says Newman, who was photography director of the Telegraph Magazine for more than 15 years.
“We Feed The World brings together an unprecedented number of world-renowned photographers, whose unique images will enlighten, inspire and motivate anyone who sees them.”
“You often hear people say ‘We need an industrial food system to feed the growing global population’,” says Francesca Price, the author, journalist, and broadcaster who came up with the idea for the project. “It’s not true – it’s just an argument pedalled by large corporations who have an interest, but it’s come to the point that people believe it.
“I started to wonder, how can we get across the key statistics to a mass audience and get the mainstream media to pay attention? How do we forge a new narrative about our food systems?
“These farms’ contribution is amazing, and that’s what the photographers have been showing,” she adds. “Family farmers across six continents using a whole range of technologies to feed their own families, feed the wider markets, and, in some cases, feed us.”
Price works for the Gaia Foundation, an environmental organisation that has over 30 years’ experience of working with farmers around the world, helping them protect their knowledge and communities in the face of declining seed diversity and rapid climate change. Gaia’s work meant it had a network of contacts who could suggest stories for the We Feed The World project, but the people depicted in it didn’t only come from Gaia.
They were also recommended by partners in organisations such as Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers’ Forum, La Via Campesino and Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement [Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra]. They also came from businesses such as Divine Chocolates, Yeo Valley, and Café Direct, all of whom have also helped support the project financially.
“Some of the stories are well known, others have never been written about before,” says Price. “For example in Mexico, Graciela Iturbide photographed an extraordinary community which is surrounded on three sides by big agribusinesses, which are slowly encroaching on their way of life. With the help of our partners, we have taken the opportunity to bring these communities to global attention and get people talking, and hopefully trying to help them.”
Keen to match photographers with farmers close to them geographically, or in terms of their approach, Newman drew on her long experience of commissioning to pick out diverse but high-quality image-makers. “They’re a disparate bunch but it was a real treat working with them,” says Newman. “Many are photographers I’ve worked with in the past and wanted to reconnect with – I have a long relationship with Spencer Murphy, for example, and Jane Hilton, and many more.
“Others I hadn’t worked with before but are just amazing – I never thought I would do anything with Graciela Iturbide, but she was so enthusiastic and generous with her time. It was a project that felt very personal to her because families and agriculture are one of her subjects.”
Price gave Newman complete freedom over the photographers she selected, and says she welcomed the diversity of styles and approaches they brought to it. “We wanted to get diversity because whole message is about diversity, it’s diversity that will see us through,” she says. “The biggest problem with farming is lack of diversity – it’s so important to have diversity in the food system. So I thought it was also important in the photographers and their work.”
The project is now culminating in an exhibition in London’s Bargehouse Gallery, which opens on 12 October, just before World Food Day on 16th October. On 14 October the Good Food March will run from Parliament Square to the gallery, where food activists and celebrity supporters such as Arizona Muse and Thomasina Miers will give speeches on the importance of sustainable farming. Prints have also been shipped out to the local producers, so that they can stage exhibitions, and the project will be promoted by the various partners who helped bring it to fruition – something that Price says is an essential.
“It’s a project that encompasses food and art and business, and business is a key element,” she explains. “Yeo Valley is the biggest organic business in the UK, so we want to use the full power of their marketing departments to get the message out.”
This message is simple, urging people to support smallholder famers by shopping local, asking restaurants and shops where their food comes from, support Fair-trade and sustainable farming – as well as to visit the exhibition, and join the Good Food March. Even for Newman, it’s been a life-changer. “It’s been inspiring,” she says. “I think much more carefully about my food now.”