Valley of Shadows and Dreams – Ken and Melanie Light

Ken and Melanie light have embarked on a five year long journey documenting through the means of photography and literacy to convey the exploration of California’s Great Central Valley, which is known for its agricultural wealth, in a compelling book entitled ‘Valley of Shadow and Dreams’. This in-depth look into the lives of farm workers in the region, explores the harsh truths of these peoples lives and how they feel angered and betrayed by politics and bureaucracy. Their land, that was once an agricultural heaven has now been transformed into neighbourhoods full of empty homes that no workers can afford. Through captivating photographs by Ken Light and the detailed essays by Melanie Light they have both captured the livelihoods of these people and the struggle they have had to go through to fight for their land as they become ever more marginalised.

“This project began when Melanie was researching background information on Hansel Mieth, one of the first woman photographers at Life Magazine and a politically active social documentary photographer in the 1930s and 1940s. As part of that research she had to go over the birth and death records for Tulare County. Pouring over the old, loopy letters made with a fountain pen, and scrolling through the microfiche of the lettuce strike in Tulare, suddenly the vast acreage around her teemed with life and history. She began to notice numerous developments going in over prime agricultural land and thus started a five year exploration of California’s Great Central Valley.”

“We were astonished by the frenzy of development there. Massive tracts of agricultural land were being turned into cul de sacs and suburban neighborhoods. Though we started to explore that story, we soon discovered a complex web that went far beyond residential development. As we witnessed the real estate bubble implode in the valley, we expanded our story to what I can only describe as a slow motion train wreck of unsustainability. This project gripped me at many levels because the issues are played out in the valley American style but they are the global challenges of our generation: water, land use, population, growing economic disparity. It will be fascinating to see how the pressure between a growing population and the limits of the earth unfolds; how the challenges are met or how we fail to find a model for sustainability.”

We were able to interview Ken and Melaine Light about this intriguing book:

Film’s not Dead: Firstly, what drew you to California’s Great Central Valley?

Ken and Melanie Light: If not for serendipity, this project might not have happened, even though the story and the valley are right in our backyard. Ken had become friends with Hansel Mieth, an activist photographer in the 1970’s after she contacted him out of the blue. She had seen some of his early photos of workers and told him they were kindred spirits in photography. Ken often visited her and they talked endlessly about photography. In later years, Melanie joined him. Hansel had worked in the central valley alongside the field workers picking lettuce and cotton. She made images recording their stuggles, in particular of the cotton strike in the 1930’s.

Because of our connection to Hansel, the Museum of Photographic Arts asked Melanie to write about Hansel for their show on pioneering women in photojournalism. In doing her research, Melanie drove into the region where Hansel had worked with her photogrpaher husband, Otto Hagel. She returned excited and maybe even a little agitated at what she had seen. The valley was undergoing massive changes. It was 2005 and booming housing developments were now spreading over once rich agricultural land, and she began to wonder who was buying these overpriced houses and how all this development would impact the workers, the air, the land, and California. She said, “This would be a great project for us. We should go and find out more,” and we did.

Film’s not Dead: What do you hope to portray from this project?

Ken and Melanie Light: The goal of this book is to use California’s Great Central Valley as an illustration of how we citizens have allowed our democracy to become skewed. While the valley is much bigger than most people imagine – nearly the size of Ireland – it is a contained region in which one can see how all the interlocking pieces of society suffer when the power and money are too concentrated in the hands of the few.

Film’s not Dead: Ken, you have captured thoughtful photographs and portraits of the people living in the Valley; what made you choose to shoot it with a Mamiya 6 and why particularly in black & white?

Ken and Melanie Light: The central valley is a photographer’s and writer’s dream, an amazing mix of startling light and a kaleidoscope of faces and stories. Ken worked in his favorite medium of black and white with his Mamiya 6 using roll film. He prefers black and white because he sees better in black and white and still works in the darkroom. The medium format is preferred because it is a slower process that forces the photographer to think more about the situation at hand and the square format is a different way of seeing.

Film’s not Dead: You have been working on this compelling project for five years, how did you approach this extensive project?

Ken and Melanie Light: As we worked the story grew far beyond a simple real estate story. It became clear that so many issues were interconnected. To understand how and why the most productive farm land in our nation is being paved over, we had to understand the history of agriculture in the west and that is intimately bound to the history of water rights and the politics of the west. Finally, what it all boiled down to was a long series of weak local and federal governments that have allowed the private agricultural sector to determine the social policy for nearly the entire state. This was exactly what we, as a nation, became aware of during the financial crisis of 2008, when it was revealed that financial insitutions had whittled away regulations and were able to take on excessive risk. The Great Central Valley is the consequence of what a democracy skewed to the few looks like.

Film’s not Dead: From all the stories and people you have met, which one has been the most memorable for you both?

Ken and Melanie Light: One day while driving aimlessly, Ken saw from afar a multi-acre field that had been destined for development. It had a large, handsome sign advertising exclusive lots for luxury homes. The downturn meant that construction had been abandoned for the moment, if not forever. The land had once been a thriving walnut orchard. The developers had pulled out all the trees, save a ring of walnut trees left as ornamentation. Ken was curious, which required a stop to explore. A few cars were parked near the fringe of trees and some men, women, and a few children milled about. He walked slowly toward them so they could see his camera hanging around his neck. They seemed to realize Ken was not a threat and began to climb the trees and jump up and down on the thin branches. Walnuts dropped to the ground and those below scurried to pick up the nuts, gathering them into their aprons and then into large burlap bags. They were non-English-speaking gleaners scraping together a living by scavenging forgotten leftovers from the harvest. Ken watched in amazement as these families worked quickly, always looking over their shoulders, nervous that they might be discovered trespassing. It was sobering to see not only how industrious people could be in times of need, but also that this remnant of a once-productive orchard had been transformed into nonfunctional eye candy where the walnuts would be a nuisance for the gardeners to sweep up and throw away.

At least these trees provided support for these families, even at thirty cents a pound. This little luxury development, should it ever be completed, might be called “Walnut Gardens,” the final insult to the land.

We saw the subprime mortgage debacle hit the valley, one of the most impacted regions in the country. One afternoon he accompanied the civil sheriff as he drove around posting foreclosure notices on homes. The sheriff admitted that his own home was underwater, worth less than what he had paid for it a few years earlier. He was still able to pay his mortgage, but he sympathized with the people who would get these notices on their doors—hard-working people whose dreams of owning a home were collapsing in foreclosure. Images of overgrown, uncared-for lawns and signs that told of bank ownership didn’t adequately convey the enormity of what was happening. So one day Ken got the idea of hanging out at a local U-Haul truck lot in Merced to wait for a family that had been hit by the downturn, and he found one quickly: a couple with three children. As he photographed them, they told him how they had become homeowners for the first time and how quickly their new home had been taken from them by a system that seemed to be stacked against them. The dreams of these working people and immigrants had disintegrated into massive, undeveloped, empty sprawls. Acres of land with newly paved roads and newly installed streetlights and fire hydrants were now ghost towns, where tumbleweeds rolled down the silent streets. Despite hundreds of vacant homes, the struggle to find affordable and adequate housing is a huge challenge in this valley.Melanie spoke with a number of growers and was confounded by what seemed to be contradictions in their words and actions. One farmer actually claimed to be a steward of the land while unloading a giant container of paraquat. It was a singular culture, closed to outsiders. While a small group of growers are committed to finding sustainable and profitable ways to farm, most hew to the “party” line.In particular, nearly every farmer or landowner would cover the same talking points about water: they needed more of it and they felt it should come to them regardless of other considerations. The challenge of how to document water issues visually was a constant background noise in Ken’s head—really more of a roar. One day while traveling through Modesto, he saw a huge sign: “Waterfront Homes.” The irony was not lost on him. Waterfront homes in a drought-stricken state, in a valley where farmers are up in arms over their decreased allotments of water? He stood there with his mouth wide open. After that, he began to notice empty reservoirs, irrigation ditches with tumbleweed—all manifestations of the lack of any sustainable or sensible water policy in the valley.

Ken photographed industrial dairies where workers simply threw dead cows out on the street for weekly pickup, and he watched as workers with no protective gear sprayed pesticides from tractors, biplanes, and helicopters. He saw the results up close, in children and adults suffering from asthma and other health issues, and in communities like Kettleman City, where twenty babies were born with birth defects—oral deformities, such as cleft palates—in a fourteen-month period (three died). The plight of this impoverished community of fifteen hundred Spanish-speaking residents was, of course, ignored by local and state government agencies. The visit was heartbreaking.

One night we went to a cantina where a large brass band blew the roof off with the sounds of Michoacán. The beer flowed in buckets, and hard lives disappeared into a wild party of dancing and the flashing lights of a disco ball. Couples slow-danced, drifting in and out of the bright, foggy lights, their intertwined bodies illuminated for brief seconds.

Ken tried to look for and capture those more intimate and personal moments—a gesture, a shaft of light illuminating a hand or a face—that illustrate the lives of ordinary people striving to preserve their humanity amid tremendous adversity, while Melanie described the historical and social reasons that the valley produces so much but with an unconsionable cost to the environment, people and future of the region – and country.

Film’s not Dead: What have the reactions been from the people of the Valley and from the general public?

Ken and Melanie Light: At our west coast book launch many “coastal” Californians told us that they had never really known about the issues in the way we presented them and they were glad to know more. When we went back to Fresno, we met a number of the community leaders that had helped us and when we gave them a book, we could see that they felt validated – certainly a feeling they seldome feel. And then, when the New York Times published the material, we knew that many people in a position of power and influence saw it. While we can’t see change happening right now, this work has absolutely empowered those people in the valley to continue to work more and to feel their work is important and we are bringing them out to the public for debate. Change takes a long time and there must be continual attention and discussion – we are just a small part of the larger discussion in the US about the role of the government vis a vis private enterprise. So far, the response has been very positive and many people have been deeply touched by it. We do know that the people who are in positions to maintain the status quo are dismissive of this work. Don Munro, of the Fresno BeeHive blog wrote very disparagingly about the book and then admitted that he had not even read it. He was invited to our Fresno event but neither he nor anyone from the “ruling elite” bothered to show up. To them, the issues we are raising are not even worth acknowledging.

Film’s not Dead: Through documenting the life in the Valley have you seen a dramatic change over your five year documentation?

Ken and Melanie Light: The project lasted five years, during which we witnessed the largest undocumented immigration march in Fresno history, the most massive foreclosures since the Great Depression, food lines, drought, the election of President Obama, valley boys dying as casualties of the war in Iraq, a huge citrus freeze that threw thousands of undocumented migrants out of work, and numerous other moments that Ken recorded with medium format film and Melanie in her interviews, conversations, and writing. It was important to take our time with this story because the issues kept growing; it took time to digest and understand what we were seeing and learning and because we hit the story at such a critical time it seemed important to let events play out a bit.We remember vividly our first trip together into the valley, in 2006, for the May Day March, the first National Mobilization for Immigrant Workers’ Rights. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of downtown Fresno. For many, it was the first time they’d put themselves so squarely in the public eye. They were standing up and saying, “We are part of the American Dream.” It was as if they had been liberated from the shadows—a life where they feared that at any moment they might be stopped, questioned, and maybe deported. As we continued to explore the valley, the poverty and hardship of the workers and their families, amid such lush agricultural lands, was glaringly apparent. The first year we were in the field, a winter freeze destroyed the citrus crop, and we watched as people suffered. Their already hard lives of picking fruits and vegetables were abruptly interrupted as they lost the ability to support themselves. No money for food, for electricity, for rent. It was hard to witness.

Film’s not Dead: How has this work affected you both?

Ken and Melanie Light: This project in our backyard forced us both to reexamine our lives in California. Like so many of our fellow Californians, we haven’t really thought about the communities and people that provide our food, or the labor that has made the state what it is for quite some time. It’s easy for the valley to be invisible to those of us who live in the big coastal cities.

Film’s not Dead: What do you want your viewers of this book to understand and to feel?

Ken and Melanie Light: If you look behind the fantasy of the California Dream, so carefully crafted, you will see there are shadows, too. We hope that this record and text about the land and its people will plainly show what the lack of visionary thinking on the part of our politicians and leaders has brought. Our sincerest wish is that this book will bring readers closer to the truth and inspire everyone to look, see, and act—so much is at stake.

Film’s not Dead: Is there anything else you would like to share with our Film’s not Dead readers?

They are released strictly according to the prescription at

Ken and Melanie Light: We have an extensive list of links with more information about our ideas regarding equality in a democratic society as well as about agriculture on our site, Valley of Shadows and Dreams. Readers can also learn more about the project, buy the book and find out about our Special Edition.

Updated:July 29, 2019