Since the earliest days of European settlement on the continent, the tobacco crop has been nourished by all the bitter contradictions of the American project. Originally harvested by indentured servants and enslaved blacks, the crop today is still a lucrative bounty for a massive agricultural industry. For years, migrant workers in the tobacco fields of North Carolina have been organizing and agitating for fair wages and working conditions, under the leadership of groups like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee(an affiliate of the AFL-CIO).
In the late 1990s, acclaimed photographer Joseph Rodriguez trained his lens across the vast fields of the Tar Heel state’s tobacco kingdom, as part of his Mexican Migration Project. His camera uncovered labor conditions that you can still find today on many of the nation’s farms.
The hazards of the job–which include pesticide exposure, dangerous heat and child exploitation–are a pervasive feature of farm life in America. The situation is particularly grim now that the White House has backtracked from earlier efforts to tighten labor protections for children working in tobacco production. But things might be changing in this corner of the country: recently, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee finally moved forward with talks with Reynolds American about improving working conditions. There’s still a tough road ahead for pro-migrant labor activists, but for these workers, struggle is a way of life.
To see more of Joseph Rodriguez’s photography of urban life, global crises, and migrants around the planet, go to his website, josephrodriguezphotography.com.
All photos ©Joseph Rodriguez.