Published by Jonathan Cape, September 2002
Set against the landscape of Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, FARM is a portrait of the working people on the land. But unlike the photographs of a conventional social document of the workers and their toil, these pictures emerge through a different visual language. Out of the daily round and physical work on the tea plantations, the smallholdings, the market gardens and the wheat and maize fields of the tribal trust lands, comes an unforgettable beauty and dignity. It emerges through the directness of the portraiture, and it surfaces in the details of its subjects. Looking at FARM, one’s eyes are drawn to the muscles in a woman’s arm, her hands, her stance, the gaze into the camera, the pattern on a dress. One might be drawn in by an eye so attuned to physical elegance that were it not for the compassion of the pictures one could perhaps imagine them to be the dispassionate creation of some new fashion observer. At the heart of the book these people display a brilliant inventiveness that converts the materials of their working lives, the polythene sheeting and the cardboard packaging, into the fabric of their working garments. The ultimate utilitarian design is revealed and with it a strange beauty. When the great American photographer, Walker Evans, went down to photograph the poverty of the sharecroppers in Alabama in the mid-thirties, he was pricking the social conscience of America with the depth of the poverty. He coupled his portraits with his incomparable studies of the austere interiors of their lives. Out of that austerity came an unavoidable aesthetic. Jackie Nickerson on another continent, in our time and in muted colour, has found a photographic language that is original, that resonates with the dignity of her subjects, and in the most unlikely and ordinary of surroundings, she has unearthed grace and human invention.