Soil erosion, wheat variety, and shiny new tractor parts may be the sorts of topics reserved to the interests of farming industry publications, but as the world becomes more globalized, the influence of agriculture photography has become crucial in communicating environmental issues that affect us all. You don’t even have to look far: the recent seige of the Malheru National Wildlife Refuge park have dominated US headlines since the beginning of January, after two ranchers were jailed amidst longtime disputes over land ownership between government and local farmers.
Illustrating this story’s underlying issues are pictures, providing further insight into the rural environment and arboricultural lifestyle that these demonstrations—and the occupation of a government building—have been catalyst to.
While photography programs specializing in agriculture do exist, pictures illustrating livestock disease and droughts seem to be an artform worth more appreciation. Sherri Dougherty is the Photo Editor of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), whose scope includes food, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, emergencies, natural resource management, and food quality and safety. In an interview over Skype, she spoke to The Creators Project about what it’s like being behind the lens of one the world’s oldest practices.
The Creators Project: I have to say, an assignment to interview an agriculture photographer was a bit strange for me.
Sherri Dougherty: I’m thrilled that someone is paying attention to the genre of agriculture photography! It can sound so boring but it’s fascinating and closely aligned with current affairs and world events.
So it’s more than just stock photos of cows and crops.
Agriculture is cousins to forestry and fishery, which is interesting because it’s our environment. It’s what we eat. It’s food production. A lot of the time the events that cause food insecurity are very dramatic. Whether they’re natural or manmade, weather phenomena that affect the livelihood of food security, and other forms of security, do grab the world’s attention.
With COP 21 Paris just past, climate and sustainability have certainly been global topics, but have these issues always grabbed the world’s attention?
Agriculture was really a forgotten and neglected subject until around 2007 when there was a soaring food price crisis which created a global crisis that caused political and economic instability and social unrest in different regions of the world. Suddenly, agriculture became a very sexy media topic. It’s unfortunate that it had to reach such dramatic degrees to bring it back on the international agenda, but now there is a lot more interest in food in general and that includes visuals.
And so what makes a good visual in this field?
That’s where working with good photographers really has its benefits. We don’t necessarily work with photographers specializing in agriculture. We work with photojournalists who need to understand the subject that they’re about to cover. Once they have that understanding, they’re able to present the story in a dynamic way through a variety of focal lengths, perspective, repetition; any number of the techniques that photographers use to bring attention to their subject.
In your opinion, why are photojournalistic techniques so essential to agriculture photography?
It gives a sense of immediacy and is more authentic really. There’s a certain dynamic to photojournalistic imagery that perhaps isn’t so apparent in documentary photography. It’s also desirable for its storytelling capacity. It has an action-oriented approach to subjects. At FAO, we want to see people actively engaged in productive activities. We’re not looking for a lot of smiling children looking into the camera. We want to have a natural, unposed, and dynamic scene represented in imagery that tells a story or process.
And where does the FAO fit into all this, content-wise?
We want to produce images that have editorial value and that don’t just serve as graphic elements. The mandate is so broad—forestry, fishery, natural resource management—but I think one of our mission is to combat compassion fatigue. With all the coverage of immediate disasters—or the cataclysmic effect of emergency situations—it’s nice to show the resilience of people to overcome catastrophe and show what they can do in the face of adversity. We document problems but many of the assignments that we commission are projects seeking to provide a solution to problems, so a lot of the images are proactive and solution driven.
If it’s an integrated pest management farmer field school, for example, then you want to show them learning. You want to show activity building and people actively engaged in what will enable them to be more autonomous and effective in their own activities. It’s an opportunity and responsibility at the same time.
What are some more examples of those assignments?
It can be a variety of things. We could go out with a vaccination campaign for livestock in East Africa. We could show the distribution of agriculture inputs to victims of natural or manmade disasters and follow up to see the results that were produced. Images showing people affected by the Haiti earthquake or natural resource management techniques for a region. We could follow an emergency response team going to Madagascar to take measures against a desert locust invasion or go and document varieties of crop as part of a project designed to rebuild the national seed system within a country destroyed by conflict over decades, such as Afghanistan.
Sometimes we have assignments on general themes like nutrition, industrial fishing, or food quality and safety standards and then we will deploy photographers in different regions with a wishlist of subjects that we’d like to see covered and develop a body of work in this way.
What’s the purpose—or space—for these images?
I think it’s both science and communication. We make the photos available through a database and the photo library responds to requests from publishers, media, civil society, private sector, and so forth in order to illustrate and inform about the FAO’s work. From the technical point of view, technical departments contact us to get professional coverage of their programs and projects. It may not be up to professional media standards but it can still be used to illustrate, for example, what does an animal infected with bird flu looks like.
You’ve been working in the area since 1991, what’s changed?
Technology has changed. When I first started we were using black-and-white film and slide film. Speed has become more important than quality for social media purposes and that has resulted in a plethora of images, perhaps with a reduction of quality. Some of the photographers do like to shoot on their iPhones but I tend to prefer that they concentrate on what our primary need is, which is well-composed, dynamic imagery that tells a story in 35mm format.
70 Years of FAO is an impressive archive looking at the organization’s photographic history. By going through the collection, what has changed on the agriculture scene throughout the years?
A migration to cities and urbanization, definitely. The world is more globalized and there’s been a visual move toward modernization, where you see an uptake in technology even among rural populations. Other effects like extreme climate change and conflicts surrounding agriculture production and food affordability have been illustrated.
Why is this genre of photography important?
Images act as the windows to which the world can see what the organization does. It’s often said that unless you have a picture of it, it didn’t happen. When looking at website or newspaper, people often look at the photograph first before committing whether to take the time to read the entire article. A photograph is important in grabbing people’s attention and communicating credibility and authenticity, authority and interest to the viewer.
To see more from the FAO’s archive click here.