On the face of it, my assignment was simple. Photograph the farmers of the world. National Geographic was undertaking an eight-month series about the vexing problem of feeding nine billion people when the great tide of human population crests in the year 2050.
My picture editor Dennis Dimick had set the agenda: show us the people who feed the planet. Face to face. Let us look into their eyes and see who they are. Meet them, know them as real people, not just visual ciphers for agricultural jargon. Farmers, particularly in the third world, are often portrayed as objects, ubiquitous and faceless, without personal stories. The fodder of statistics and spreadsheets.
Which is how I came face to face with Estela Cóndor on a mountainside in the Andes, harvesting potatoes. She looked into my lens, and there was catchlight in her right eye. It was that twinkle that made the picture.
Or, was it her graven face, stoic on one side, weary on the other? Or her Peruvian garb, or the way she held the potatoes and oca in her lap? Or was it the jagged Andes behind her, the switchback road—bolting across the frame like lightning—or the clouds sliding over the peaks and down in whisps into the valley?
Photographers live for these moments, when the world comes together and light streams into our souls, and the longed for image is there, in front of us. And I had longed for that moment in front of Estela for two years, time spent in research and planning. Photography seems so simple and straightforward, after the picture is taken. And so ridden with angst before.
Pressing the shutter is easy. Finding the Estelas of the world is the hard part.
This is the story of finding such people and such moments.
As it happens it is also the story of the people who just may make it possible to feed nine billion people by 2050. It goes like this.
Sitting in my office back in Kansas my job was to find 30 or 40 Estelas around the world and put myself in front of them, at just the right time, in the middle of harvest, or planting, or when the fields looked lush and verdant. On several continents. By the end of October. I was sweating blood.
Researching and planning such a photographic coverage for a National Geographic story is always a big jigsaw puzzle. This one was worse, complicated by the global scope, needing to find farmers all over the world, working their fields, harvesting crops, tending livestock, and timed to perfection: when for rice harvest in Bali, for wheat in South Dakota, ground nuts in Mali or cabbage in Ukraine?
I started with potatoes. My salvation came from another Peruvian woman: Maria Elena Lanatta, a communications officer for CIP, the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru. She knows potato farmers. Once I found her, in short order she found farmers harvesting near Paucartambo—and a guide, Alejandra Arce, who knew them personally.
Neither Maria nor her agricultural research colleagues ever get the credit they deserve, but photographers like me live and die by their graces.
Agriculture can be tough to photograph. It’s a vast endeavor, perhaps the largest on the face of the planet, but not the stuff of action thrillers. Global agribusiness lacks the personal touch. We opted to look ‘em in the eye. Alejandra got me there. When she prodded me (oxygen starved and panting) up the mountain above Bella Vista I met Uva Callupe. Elegant, kind, and beautiful, Uva is a farmer. (Truth told the majority of farmers in the world may well be women.)
Her potato fields are about the size of a decent American living room. Most Americans tend to think farming is simple. Not for Uva. In that little field she grows 50 to 70 varieties of potatoes, for diversity she plants fields at three different elevations, each field on a seven year rotation. (Or sometimes fifteen years.) In a good year she harvests 20 bags of potatoes for each bag she plants, hoping to keep ten 70 kilo bags for her family of four, or about 1,500 pounds for the year. The rows and trench pattern (called chiwi) are dug by hand with the traditional hoe-like Tacla, and worked four times before harvest. She hopes for potatoes to sell for cash. At lunch in the fields they gather around the traditional Pachamanca, where potatoes and meat have been cooked amid hot rocks covered with Mother Earth.
I tell you all this because Uva’s particular story is so like every other farmer’s story that I met around the world. They are always convoluted and never simple, always anguished by weather, always fretful and tenuous, and always told by smart farmers trying every year to get smarter. We tend to think that rural farmers are simple folk living simple lives. Do not be deceived.
Next stop, the rice fields of Bangladesh.
With the help of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and many other agencies and agricultural experts, Jim Richardson was able to locate farmers around the globe for “The Faces of Farming“, a series of portraits appearing in the May 2014 issue. This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.