Building a New Future: Art and Activism in the Central Valley
Photographs by George Ballis
March 22, 2023 - July 28, 2023
Kolligian Library, Second Floor
The industrial scale agriculture that dominates the Central Valley of California has historically relied on groups of seasonal, mostly migrant farmworkers. Foreign nationals from Asia, Mexico, and the Middle East, black Americans from the rural South, and members of other marginalized groups have been attracted to the world’s most productive agricultural region by the promise of employment and economic opportunity. Instead, they have faced meager wages, substandard housing, lack of access to clean water and healthcare, not to mention harsh conditions and exploitation. Attempts to organize any action against these conditions have typically been met with retaliation, and often with violence. While California fruits and vegetables predominate in the marketplace, the plight of the farmworkers remains largely hidden from the public eye.
George “Elfie” Ballis (1925-2010) gave up a football scholarship at the University of Minnesota to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II. Returning from the war, he dedicated himself to the “doing” of more democratic institutions and majored in journalism and political science. After moving to Fresno in 1953 to become editor of a labor newspaper, he began taking photographs of migrant workers’ housing and working conditions and tried to establish trusting, respectful relationships with his subjects. Later working as a freelance photojournalist and farm labor organizer, Ballis chronicled the ins and outs of the farmworker movement and took tens of thousands of photographs. Movement organizers used his images to publicize the cause, and they were also supplied to the popular press to galvanize public support.
This exhibit presents but a small selection of Ballis’s photographs. They include key moments and figures of the farmworkers movement, as well as photographs Ballis took as he turned his attention to community and environmental organizing in the 1970s. By capturing the cultural and community-based elements of the farmworkers movement, the photographs of George Ballis tell a story beyond their precarity of life. They speak to the wealth of community action and cultural production that presents a vital legacy for change agents today.
“We got a lot of power. We can do a lot of things, if we just go out and do them... A lot of folks do not use their power not because they are afraid, but because they don’t want to accept the responsibility for freedom.”
—George Ballis, in an interview with Studs Terkel, 1979.